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.

13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Discovered by accident in 1994, the cave paintings adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France are among the oldest and most beautiful figurative art in human history. About 36,000 years ago, the ancient artists drew lifelike beasts that seem to gallop, crawl, and frolic through the cave’s chambers. In one stunning triptych, 50 drawings of horses, lions, and reindeer cavort across 49 feet of limestone wall. The cave paintings even impressed filmmaker Werner Herzog enough to make a documentary (available on Netflix). Here are a few more facts about the Chauvet Cave paintings.

1. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered by three local explorers.

It was December 18, 1994. French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire had spent the day exploring the Pont d’Arc caves in the Ardèche region in southern France. They came upon an array of fallen rocks and noticed a gentle woosh of air from beneath the rock pile. Prying aside the stones, they found an aperture and dropped down into a large chamber with a high ceiling that appeared to branch off into other chambers. Their headlamps illuminated several handprints and a red ochre painting of a mammoth on the wall of one chamber. At that moment, they knew they had stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery.

2. Chauvet Cave was formed by an underground river.

Replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc, also known as the Chauvet Cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, which is located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Subterranean rivers flowing through the area's limestone hills created Chauvet Cave, along with hundreds of other gorges and caverns in the Ardèche. Chauvet Cave is about 1300 feet (roughly a quarter-mile) long with 14 chambers branching off the largest room, the Chamber of the Bear Hollows—the first one discovered by Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, and Hillaire. This chamber, closest to the entrance, features no cave paintings; flooding is thought to have washed away any artwork. The most decorated vestibules are farthest from the entrance and include the Hillaire Chamber, Red Panels Gallery, Skull Chamber, the Megaloceros Gallery, and the End Chamber.

3. The Chauvet Cave painters were Aurignacians.

Aurignacians, the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, lived during the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, between 46,000 and 26,000 years ago. (Aurignacian also refers to this time period.) Aurignacian culture is characterized by the first figurative drawings and carvings, the invention of a flaked stone tool called a burin used for engraving, bone and antler tools, jewelry, and the oldest-known musical instruments.

In addition to the Chauvet Cave paintings, Aurignacian animal and human figurines have been found in other parts of Europe. At the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered the oldest known Venus statuette, dating from 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, and some of the oldest known bone flutes from the same time period. In Southeast Asia, a cave in Borneo bears the oldest known figurative painting, created at least 40,000 years ago.

4. Ancient humans visited Chauvet Cave during two separate millennia.

A reproduction of a hand stencil found in Chauvet Cave
Picture taken on October 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

According to paleontologist Michel-Alain Garcia in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, radiocarbon dating of organic materials in Chauvet Cave suggest people used the cave during two different time periods. In the first, about 36,500 years ago during the Aurignacian, artists drew the majority of the Chauvet Cave paintings. They brought wood into the cave and burned it to create light and charcoal for drawing. Then, for an unknown reason, the Aurignacians abandoned the cave for about five or six thousand years, and it was taken over by cave bears. In the second instance of human use, about 31,000 to 30,000 years ago in the Gravettian period, humans left behind footprints, scorch marks from torches, and charcoal, but no artwork.

5. Fourteen animal species are represented in the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The most common animals in the Chauvet Cave paintings are cave lions, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses; all coexisted with the Aurignacians in Europe, but are now extinct. Along with depictions of cave bears, the four species make up 65 percent of the species in the paintings. The other are bison, horses, reindeer, red deer, ibex, aurochs (an extinct wild ancestor of domesticated cattle), the extinct Megaloceros deer (also called the Irish elk or giant deer), musk ox, panthers, and an owl. The paintings are notable for depicting not just figurative representations of the animals, but actual scenes that reveal the animals’ real behavior—like two woolly rhinoceroses butting horns, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison.

6. Non-animal themes also pop up in Chauvet Cave paintings.

Palm prints in red paint found in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

In the middle chambers of Chauvet Cave, several walls and overhanging rocks are decorated with red dots made by human palms and stencils of human hands. In the farthest galleries of the cave, five triangular representations of a woman’s pubic area are scratched on to the walls, and one picture of a woman’s lower body similar in profile to Paleolithic Venus figurines is drawn on a stalactite-like rock pendant. Anthropologists are not sure what they’re meant to symbolize.

7. A prehistoric child’s footprints were discovered in Chauvet Cave.

A single track of footprints measuring 230 feet long was found in the soft clay floor of the cave’s Gallery of the Crosshatching. Researchers analyzed modern European feet that were estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of European Early Modern Humans and determined that the track was probably made by a young boy about 4.5 feet tall. Scientists were able to date the prints based on the marks left by a burning torch on the roof of the gallery. “The child regularly wiped his torch on [the vault] above his path. These charcoal marks, dated to 26,000 years ago, seem to have been placed contrary to the direction of progress on purpose, as if to mark the way back,” Garcia writes. Two bits of charcoal were retrieved from the substrate and dated to a period between 31,430 years and 25,440 years ago.

8. The child might have had a pet dog.

The adolescent boy’s footprints are near those of a large canid—possibly a wolf. When Garcia took a closer look, he noticed the length of the middle digit was shorter than a wolf’s, a trait more typical of a domesticated dog. But in the 1990s, when Garcia made the find, the oldest undisputed fossil evidence of a domesticated dog dated back only 14,200 years before present.

A 2017 study that built on previous research, however, compared genomes of three Neolithic dogs with those of more than 5000 canines, including modern wolves and dogs. The researchers concluded that dogs and wolves split genetically sometime between 41,500 and 36,900 years ago, and a second divergence of eastern and western dogs occurred between 23,900 and 17,500 years ago. That puts the window of domestication between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago—the same time as the Aurignacian child and his very good boy were walking through Chauvet Cave.

9. Chauvet cave provided shelter for bears.

Outline of a cave bear head in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Larger than modern grizzlies, cave bears spent winters in Chauvet Cave for thousands of years before humans began painting in it. They left claw scratches on the walls and dozens of tracks and footprints in the floor. In the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, researchers have found more than 300 hollows (sleeping spots that bears wore into the cave floor) and dozens of bear tracks and paw prints, made after humans stopped visiting the cave. About 2500 cave bear bones and 170 skulls were scattered throughout the cave’s main chambers. When scientists first investigated the cave in the mid-1990s, they found a cave bear skull carefully placed on a large stone in the middle of a deep chamber, in a way that only humans could have done.

10. The cave also provided shelter for a lot of wolves.

The floor of the Brunel Chamber, directly south of the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, showed multiple wolf prints that indicated a large number of “fissipeds” (pad-footed carnivores) had trampled the ground. Bear prints were superimposed on the wolf prints, suggesting that the bears came in after the wolves.

Not only large carnivores occupied the cave—judging from the variety of bones, it was practically a prehistoric zoo. In addition to the wolf, ibex, and bear bones, prehistorian Jean Clottes reported finding those of foxes, martens (a kind of weasel), roe deer, horses, birds, rodents, bats, and reptiles. And, yes, he also found fossilized wolf poop, indicating the wolves probably went into the cave in search of carrion.

11. No one knows why the Chauvet Cave paintings were created.

Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc also known as the Chauvet cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

The purpose behind the Chauvet Cave paintings is a mystery, but some characteristics of the artwork may offer clues. Researchers have noted that the primary species depicted—cave bear, lion, mammoth, and rhinoceros—were not prey species that Aurignacians pursued for food, possibly suggesting that the paintings weren’t meant to ensure bountiful hunting.

A 2016 study hinted that the Chauvet Cave artists may have been recording contemporary events. Jean-Michel Geneste and colleagues proposed that a spray-like design in the Megaloceros Gallery was a faithful depiction of a volcanic eruption that occurred in the nearby Bas-Vivaris region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. If that is true, Chauvet Cave boasts the oldest known painting of volcanic activity, smoking the previous record holder—a 9000-year-old mural in central Turkey—by 28,000 years.

12. When Werner Herzog entered Chauvet Cave, he was overwhelmed.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog accompanied researchers into the depths of the cave system to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (available to stream on Netflix). Herzog’s grandfather was an archaeologist, and Herzog himself once earned money as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy a book about cave art. “Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe,” Herzog told The A.V. Club in 2011. “The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance.”

13. You can visit a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The world-famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, not far from Pont d’Arc, were damaged by the exhalations of thousands of visitors after the cave was opened to the public in 1948. So, immediately after Chauvet Cave was discovered, scientists moved to protect the fragile paintings and closed it to the public; now, only scholars are allowed in during brief windows of time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see a simulation of the artwork up close. In 2015, a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings, dubbed the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, opened near the site of the actual cave. Engineers and artists faithfully recreated not just the dazzling paintings, but also the temperature, dampness, murk, and funky smell of the original.

The Person Who Solves the Mysterious Inscription on This French Rock Will Be Awarded $2200

iStock.com/GAPS
iStock.com/GAPS

In the village of Plougastel-Daoulas in the Finistere region of Brittany, France, there's a boulder that's only uncovered at low tide. When waters recede, a mysterious inscription carved into one side becomes visible, and though it's written in the Latin alphabet, no one has been able to decipher the message. The only scrutable components are the years 1786 and 1787—suggesting the carving is at least 230 years old. Now, The Local France reports that the village is offering €2000 (roughly $2242) to anyone who can break the code.

According to the mayor of Plougastel-Daoulas, the cipher was discovered on the town's shore a few years ago. The letters, most of which are capitalized, look like they might spell clear words from far away, but upon closer inspection they seem to be arranged in no apparent order. Lines contain nonsense like "DRE AR GRIO SE EVELOH AR VIRIONES BAOAVEL," and "R I OBBIIE: BRISBVILAR." There are also pictures of objects like sailboats etched into the stone.

If the message was written in the late 18th century as the dates indicate, various artillery batteries would have been stationed on Brittany's coast, including at Corbeau Fort which is beside the site. Beyond that, town authorities have no clues as to the inscription's origins. Some people think it's written in Basque or old Breton, but the town wants to hear what a professional code-breaker has to say.

Plougastel-Daoulas is calling on linguists, historians, academics, students, and hobbyists to examine the carving and determine its meaning. When all the translations are submitted, a jury will convene to select the most likely possibility and award the code-breaker the €2000.

In some cases, even years worth of studying ciphers isn't enough to crack a code. A code found in the pocket of a murder victim stumped the FBI for more than a decade, and the centuries-old Voynich Manuscript is still undeciphered.

[h/t The Local France]

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