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Archaeologists Need Your Help to Study 100+ Graves in Philadelphia

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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