Archaeologists Need Your Help to Study 100+ Graves in Philadelphia

In 1707, the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, which was less than 10 years old, found a permanent home at a Quaker meeting house on what is now Arch Street in the Old City area. The Quakers soon moved out, but the Baptists stayed on, building new brick buildings as the congregation grew—and an adjacent cemetery to bury those who died. By 1763, the church decreed that congregants who chipped in for the building of a meeting house could be buried for one dollar. Others would have to ante up at least two dollars.

For most of the next century, that cycle of growth and death continued, until First Baptist became too large for its location and decided to move to another spot nearby. The church made an agreement with the newly chartered Mount Moriah Cemetery that in 1859, the remains of the people in its cemetery would be moved to section 112 of Mount Moriah.

But as construction workers discovered last fall, the bodies hadn't been moved. They were still literally six feet under.

As the crew from PMC Property Group broke ground on the former church site to build an apartment complex, bones began appearing. At first it was just a box full, and not all of them were human. They were also unclaimed, as Kimberlee Moran, director of forensic science at Rutgers University-Camden, read in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper reported that local and state agencies typically charged with looking after cultural heritage said they had no jurisdiction in this case, because the remains were discovered on private land in a privately funded project. The site manager told the paper that unless someone claimed them, the bones would buried in the concrete floor of the building's parking garage. "They'll be there forever," he said.

That's when Moran called Anna Dhody, director of the Mütter Institute and curator at the Mütter Museum. Dhody contacted the developer and said the museum would take temporary custodianship of the remains, clean them, and then re-inter them at Mount Moriah, with which the museum already had a relationship.

The construction crew resumed work. In late February, Dhody got an email from PMC saying a backhoe had unearthed more remains. Dhody asked how many more. “‘You’d better come down here,’” the PMC representative told her.

So she and Moran did. “And there’s just remains everywhere,” Dhody recalled to mental_floss. There were both exposed bones and sealed coffins, which would turn out to be buried three to four deep in some places. “It became clear to us that there at least was a substantial chunk of the cemetery that had not even been touched," Dhody says.

In March, Dhody and Moran put together an emergency archaeology dig to remove all the human remains. Dhody says, “We sent out the bat signal, or the trowel signal” to colleagues all over the country. Archaeologists and forensic scientists from Massachusetts to Maryland joined the roughly week-long salvage operation. PMC paused construction and loaned equipment and crew for the project.

Working in teams of 12, the crew excavated an area roughly 20 feet x 50 feet x 6 feet, mapping the layout of the discoveries on paper by hand as a photographer documented it all. “The concentration of coffins in there was staggering,” Dhody says.

In all, at least 80 sets of human remains were found during the emergency excavation—but there are a lot more people than that, says Moran. That single box of bones turned into 50 boxes, many of them unassociated with coffins, of which there are about 70. Roughly half of the coffins are intact. In all, Moran says, there are at least 100 people—so many, the researchers can’t house them all in one spot, so the remains are currently divided among a few locations, including the Mütter Museum and Rutgers-Camden.

More may remain underground, hidden beneath adjacent standing buildings; according to historical maps of the cemetery, the area they excavated was in the middle of the burying ground. In that area, at least, “I’m hopeful that we got everyone out,” Moran says.

Now here’s where you come in. The researchers are trying to raise $20,000 to house the remains in one place and analyze them. It's called the Arch Street Bones Project. Right now, the research is entirely reliant on crowdfunding.

The project has the potential to open a new window on life in Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States, through some of the most transformative periods of American history—from the pioneering urban settlements of the early 18th century through the period just before the Civil War. Who were these early Philadelphians? Were they European or African? What were their lives like? What did they eat? How did manual labor and childbirth leave marks on their bones? What kinds of diseases and injuries plagued them? Did some of them die during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, and others the 1849 cholera epidemic? Their bones hold the potential to answer all of these questions.

I’m going to be there in the lab with the scientists as they conduct their research, including opening some of these coffins for the first time.

The first step will be to create a biological profile of each person: sex, age at time of death, height, racial or ethnic origin, and any injuries or pathologies that leave marks on the skeleton, such as osteoporosis. Further down the line, the research team would like to do isotopic studies (which can indicate where they were born), hair analysis, and analytical chemistry of the bones to identify the kinds of foods they were eating, and whether the dead had any nutritional deficiencies.

The team already has some initial insights into the remains. “We truly have a cross-section of society,” says Moran. “We have everything from the very, very young—the smallest coffin that I personally excavated was not much larger than a shoebox—and then we have the very, very old. We have some individuals who’ve lost all their teeth, and you can tell from their bones that they made it well into their ‘70s, or maybe even beyond, which is pretty significant for this time period, when mortality rates were relatively high, and people didn’t live too long. We’ve got men and women, we’ve got teenagers … and that’s great, because that gives us a really interesting sample population.”

Moran continues, “A number of people—and some of them pretty old people—had various ridges on their long bones of their arms and legs that were well defined, and that’s indicative of having some pretty significant muscle mass. So I don’t know if that means these individuals were laborers, but they were strong. Even the old people were strong.”

These muscled people were split between men and women. One woman, whose remains were found in the last coffin the team pulled out of the ground, was virtually toothless—but she had nevertheless been very strong when she died.

Other initial findings suggest unique genetic traits shared among several people. “We have quite a few people that appear to be male—their pelvis tells us they’re males—but they kind of have feminine facial features,” Moran says. She cautions that these are very preliminary assessments, but “on the very surface of things, we have quite a few men whose skulls don’t have the same kind of heavy, masculine features that you would expect to see in a masculine skeleton—they don’t have a heavy brow ridge, or other kind of prominent skull features. So that’s interesting.”

These kinds of unexpected skeletal features may be useful to family, racial, and ethnic identification. For additional insight, the researchers are bringing in a forensic artist who does facial reconstructions based on skull features.

So far, surprisingly few artifacts have been recovered. There are few textiles beyond the soles of leather shoes. There are no buttons or aglets, jewelry or hair pins. There is a good amount of hair—which is also surprising, because the same soil conditions that caused some bones to crumble should've also destroyed the hair.

After analysis, the remains will be re-interred at Mount Moriah Cemetery—and the researchers are determined that it will actually happen this time, unlike in 1859. (Mount Moriah is itself in disrepair, but that's another story.) No one “owns” these remains. The researchers have custodianship over them for now, and they are fascinated with the remains’ potential to reveal new insights about the history of Philadelphia and the United States. But they’re also keenly aware of the fact that these people need to be interred in section 112 of Mount Moriah—the place they were supposed to have been all this time.

It's unclear whether anyone was moved to Mount Moriah. "There are headstones in section 112 that belonged to the First Baptist folks, but they were repurposed into a walkway," Moran says. "There are some headstones that are standing, but they are too weathered to see any inscription. It’s hard to say if anyone was moved. Section 112 was used after the 1860 move, so there are lots of more modern burials there. I’m not sure if we’ll ever know for sure."

Nevertheless, Moran and Dhody hope that by cross-referencing with historical documents—archives, death and church records, newspaper accounts—there's a chance that they may be able to identify some of these individuals and, potentially, their living descendants.

“We’re just generally trying to be respectful,” Moran says. “We don’t want to make this a salacious story.”

If you’re as fascinated with this discovery as the researchers are—and I am—then chip into the project, and join us in the lab. Dhody says, "We've got years of work ahead of us."

All photos are courtesy of The Mütter Institute of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

How Thomas Jefferson's Obsession With Mastodons Partly Fueled the Lewis and Clark Expedition

James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
James St. John, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the 1800s, American mastodons—prehistoric relatives of the elephant—had been extinct for roughly 10,000 years. Thomas Jefferson didn’t know that, though. The Founding Father dreamed of finding a living, breathing mastodon in America, and this lofty goal ended up being a motivating force throughout much of his life. Even during the Revolutionary War, and even when he ran for the highest office in the land, he had mastodons on the mind. Jefferson was convinced that the hairy beasts still roamed the continent, probably somewhere on the uncharted western frontier, and he was determined to find them—or, at the very least, enlist a couple of intrepid explorers by the names of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to do the hunting on his behalf.

The Corps of Discovery departed from St. Louis on May 14, 1804 and headed into the great unknown of the Louisiana Purchase in search of an all-water route to the Pacific. The adventurers made many discoveries on the two-and-a-half-year round trip—mapping the geography of the region and logging hundreds of species of flora and fauna unknown to science—but the directive to look for mastodons is a little-known footnote to their famous expedition.

At the start of their trip, Jefferson instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for “the remains and accounts of any [animal] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” Although he didn’t mention mastodons specifically—at least not in any of the written correspondence on record—the two explorers were all too familiar with Jefferson’s mammoth ambition. “Surely Jefferson still had the M-word in mind, and surely Lewis knew it,” author Robert A. Saindon writes in Explorations Into the World of Lewis and Clark, Volume 2.

Jefferson had long been interested in paleontology, but his mastodon obsession was fueled by a longstanding beef he had with a French naturalist who thought America’s animals and people were puny. Jefferson’s bone-collecting hobby quickly evolved into a mission to assert America’s dominance in the Western world and prove that it was "a land full of big and beautiful things," as journalist Jon Mooallem put it in his book, Wild Ones. Indeed, there are worse ways to become a political and cultural heavyweight than to prove your country is home to a 12,000-pound monster.

A Rivalry Forms

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon

François-Hubert Drouais, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

For much of his adult life, Jefferson was an avid collector of fossils and bones. At various points in time, he owned a bison fossil, elk and moose antlers, giant ground sloth fossils, and naturally, a number of mastodon bones.

Though his original interest may have been purely academic, Jefferson's exposure to the writings of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon fanned the flames of his obsession. Buffon’s “Theory of American Degeneracy,” published in the 1760s, postulated that the people and animals of America were small and weak because the climate (he assumed, without much evidence) was too cold and wet to encourage growth.

Jefferson was furious. He formulated a rebuttal, which partly drew attention to the inconsistencies in Buffon's beliefs about the mastodon. Buffon suggested that the American mastodon was a combination of elephant and hippopotamus bones, but because Jefferson had inspected the bones, he knew that the measurements didn't match those of previously known species. Instead, Jefferson argued that the bones belonged to a different animal entirely. (Although they’re distinct species, woolly mammoths and mastodons were lumped into the same category at the time, and were called one of two names: mammoths or the American incognitum.)

“The skeleton of the mammoth … bespeaks an animal of five or six times the cubic volume of the elephant,” Jefferson wrote. He later scaled back his argument a bit, adding, “But to whatever animal we ascribe these remains, it is certain such a one has existed in America, and that it has been the largest of all terrestrial beings.”

He didn’t just believe that mastodons had existed at one point in time, though—he believed they were still out there somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for thinkers and scientists of Jefferson's era to assume that bones were evidence of a still-living species. After all, dinosaurs had not yet been discovered (though their bones had been found, no one would call them dinosaurs until the early 19th century), and the concept of extinction wasn’t widely accepted or understood. Dominant religious beliefs also reinforced the idea that God’s creations couldn't be destroyed.

For his part, Jefferson believed that animals fell into a natural order, and that removing a link in “nature’s chain” would throw the whole system into disarray. Taking the tone of a philosopher, he once questioned, “It may be asked, why I insert the Mammoth, as if it still existed? I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist?”

This position may have been partly fueled by wishful thinking. Jefferson believed that tracking down a living mastodon would be the most satisfying way to stick it to Buffon and say, “I told you so.” (In the meantime, though, he had to settle for a dead moose, which he sent overseas to the Frenchman’s doorstep in Paris to prove that large animals did, in fact, exist in America.)

The Hunt Continues

A painting of The Exhumation of the Mastadon

This 1806 painting by Charles Willson Peale, titled The Exhumation of the Mastadon, shows mastodon bones being excavated from a water-filled pit.

Charles Willson Peale, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

In late 1781, Jefferson wrote to his buddy George Rogers Clark in the Ohio valley and asked him to fetch some mastodon teeth from a nearby "mastodon boneyard" in northern Kentucky called Big Bone Lick. “Were it possible to get a tooth of each kind, that is to say a foretooth, grinder, &c, it would particularly oblige me,” Jefferson wrote. Clark politely explained that the possibility of Native American attacks made this task impossible, but he was able to procure a thighbone, jaw bone, grinder, and tusk from travelers who had managed to visit the frontier.

However, Jefferson didn’t receive Clark's reply until six months later in August 1782 (because of, you know, the Revolutionary War). Although the war technically didn't end until the following year, peace talks between the two sides were nearing a conclusion, and everybody knew it. With an end to the conflict in sight, Jefferson doubled down on his request for mastodon bones. He wrote to Clark, “A specimen of each of the several species of bones now to be found is to me the most desireable object in Natural History, and there is no expence of package or of safe transportation which I will not gladly reimburse to procure them safely.”

Later, while serving as America’s first Secretary of State, Jefferson supported a proposed Western exploration that would have preceded the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the expedition was called off, Jefferson had instructed the would-be explorer, French botanist André Michaux, to look for mastodons along the way. He wrote to Michaux in 1793, “Under the head of Animal history, that of the Mammoth is particularly recommended to your enquiries.”

Even when Jefferson turned his attention to national politics and ran for president against incumbent John Adams in 1800, he was still thinking about mastodons. His preoccupations were so widely known that his opponents, the Federalists, called him a “mammoth infidel” in reference to his unusual hobby and supposed secular leanings. As an 1885 article in the Magazine of American History recalled, “When Congress was vainly trying to untangle the difficulties arising from the tie vote between Jefferson and [Aaron] Burr, when every politician at the capital was busy with schemes and counter-schemes, this man, whose political fate was balanced on a razor’s edge, was corresponding with [physician and professor] Dr. [Caspar] Wistar in regard to some bones of the mammoth which he had just procured from Shawangunk, Ulster County.”

Once president, Jefferson used his office to further the field of paleontology. Not long after he was elected, he loaned one of the Navy’s pumps to artist and naturalist Charles Willson Peale, who wanted to extract a pile of freshly unearthed mastodon bones from a water-filled pit. It ultimately became the first fossilized skeleton to ever be assembled in America.

Of course, there is also evidence that Jefferson silently hoped Lewis and Clark would stumble upon a living mastodon during their expedition, which formally kicked off in 1804 and ended in 1806. That, as we now know, was impossible. After their return, Jefferson sent William Clark on a second assignment to collect artifacts from Big Bone Lick. He sent three big boxes of bones back to Jefferson, who got to work unloading and studying them in the East Room of the White House—the same room where John and Abigail Adams once hung their laundry.

Still, something wasn’t quite right, and Jefferson may have known it even then. By 1809, the animal in question had been identified and given the name mastodon, and Jefferson started to reverse some of his previously held opinions. In a letter to William Clark, he conceded that the mastodon was not a carnivore, as he once believed, but an herbivore. "Nature seems not to have provided other food sufficient for him," he wrote, "and the limb of a tree would be no more to him than a bough of cotton tree to a horse."

Accepting the Mastodon’s Fate

Thomas Jefferson
National Archive/Newsmakers

The fact that Lewis and Clark never spotted any giants roaming out West may have helped Jefferson accept the inevitable: Mastodons had gone extinct long ago. Waxing poetic in a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos.”

Although he was unsuccessful in his quest to find a living mastodon, Jefferson made other meaningful contributions to the field of paleontology. The fossils of another mysterious creature he believed to be a lion were later revealed to be that of a giant ground sloth. He named it Megalonyx (Greek for “great claw”), and in 1822, the extinct creature was renamed Megalonyx jeffersonii in Jefferson’s honor.

Nowadays, the ground sloth fossils—and several other items that formed the "cabinet of curiosities" Jefferson displayed at his Monticello estate—are part of The Academy of Natural Science collection at Drexel University. Considering that Jefferson is sometimes called "the founder of North American paleontology,” it would appear he got his revenge against Buffon after all.

A Pair of Dutch World War II Shipwrecks Have Disappeared Off the Coast of Malaysia

jfybel/iStock via Getty Images
jfybel/iStock via Getty Images

For nearly 80 years, two Dutch submarines have been occupying the ocean floor off the coast of Malaysia, with the remains of their crews still inside. They were among dozens of shipwrecks in the same area, all of them casualties of underwater World War II battles. Now, the ships— known as HNLMS O 16 and HNLMS K VII—are gone.

There’s nothing paranormal at work, though. Instead, the ships have vanished as a result of greed. Scavengers in the area have made a profitable pursuit of placing explosives within the wrecks, blowing them into manageable pieces and taking off with the scrap metal using a crane. Copper and bronze materials can also be resold. It’s estimated that about 40 ships in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have been demolished as a result of such efforts in recent years.

Because the ships are typically considered unmarked graves, the thieves may be committing the crime of desecrating corpses. After several British ships were found ransacked, the UK’s Ministry of Defense urged Indonesia to increase their efforts to protect the ships. The United States has dispatched representatives in Indonesia to guard ships they believe have been targeted by the scavengers.

Marine archaeologists have expressed some puzzlement at the phenomenon, as the scrap can often take weeks to retrieve, is frequently corroded, and would seemingly be cost-prohibitive to steal considering the labor involved. It’s possible that the ships may be targeted for having low-background metals, which are free from radiation because they pre-date atomic bomb testing and can be used in delicate scientific instruments like Geiger counters. In China, scrap metal could bring in about $1.3 million per ship. 

[h/t Live Science]

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