Friday, March 10, 2017

"You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!"

Finding forgotten cemeteries at construction sites in Philadelphia isn't as weird as in, say, Encino, California. Nevertheless, the creepy factor of a dozen or so skeletons and collapsed coffins is always headline worthy. And this week, a minor blizzard isn't what captured audiences, it was the First Baptist Church Burial Ground that PMC Property found near 2nd and Arch in Old City.

Last November, several bones and headstones had been uncovered at the site, but nothing to significantly halt construction. Yesterday's discovery was significantly more macabre and archeologists, including resources from the Mutter Museum, are working overtime to carefully remove as much as possible by tomorrow. 

What's of particular interest to archeologists is that this cemetery pre-dates the American Revolution, offering insight into a number of traditions, behavior, and activity of Colonial life in Philadelphia. Thousands of Colonial Americans are buried beneath our churches, but we don't routinely go digging into hallowed ground to run DNA tests on our ancestors. Digs like this - short as they may be - are rare opportunities that can lead to months, even years of research adding layers to the story of our Colonial roots. 

America's historic records are comparatively intact. Considering other countries have been far more ravaged by war and regime changes, we still retain a surprising amount of data from before the Revolution. Philadelphia, once the second largest city in the British Empire and the most prominent city in the Colonies, was keen on preserving information even dating back to the days of William Penn. The fact that we know this was the site of the First Baptist Church is a testament to the dedication of historians in a relatively new nation. 

We know that the church and its burial ground date to 1707, and we know why those bodies are there. That's where this story takes a bit of a bleak, albeit not unexpected turn. In the 1860s, these bodies were to be moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery in SW Philadelphia. Whether the headstones were moved we don't yet know, and may not ever know considering the condition of Mount Moriah. But we do know that the bodies were not.

That is literally the premise of the horror movie, Poltergeist.

"You left the bodies and you only moved the headstones!"

I got a sneak-peek, in that I snuck a peek under the fence. The bodies are under that tarp.

PMC Property seems to be taking this in stride. Even if their project doesn't become the most haunted new apartment building in Philadelphia, renting out luxury units over a cemetery might be a hard sell. After archeologists complete their studies, PMC will be paying to respectfully have the bodies interred in Mount Moriah, where they should have ended up 150 years ago. 

It's hard to say how or where, exactly. Mount Moriah Cemetery is dealing with its own neglect. The Philadelphia side of Mount Moriah, where these bodies were likely headed, was an abandoned haven for crime until it was taken over by the Friends of Mount Moriah a few years ago. Cleanup efforts have transformed the place into a wonderland of wild, but it's far from a traditional cemetery. If any of the bodies are ever identified, finding their headstones will be nearly impossible. 

For the time being, archeologists in Philadelphia and beyond are fixated on Old City, eagerly anticipating the stories these Colonial Philadelphians are waiting to tell.