Construction Crew Stumbles into Colonial Cemetery

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Robison Wells
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On a lot that will soon be a 10-story, 116-unit apartment building, PMC Property Group of Philadelphia, PA, dug down to find the remains of at least 38 people. The bodies are in coffins, six-feet underground. So far, archaeologists have not found historical records of a cemetery in that area, which only adds to the mystery of the burial ground.

As the owner and contractor, PMC said through their spokesman Jonathan Stavin, they plan to make sure that the coffins and bones will be removed with great care and reinterred in Mount Moriah cemetery. “It’s the right thing to do,” Stavin said.

Archaeologists are racing to uncover and remove the bodies, with a hope that they will finish by Saturday, though that date may be extended.

Both in Philadelphia and elsewhere, construction companies have not always taken the time to call in teams of archeologists and investigate sites like this. Every day construction is halted is a detriment to the contractor’s bottom line. Archaeologists say they know that some construction companies would have turned a blind eye and continued with the building project. In fact, Anna Dhody, the director of the Mutter Institute and Museum, says that there are likely other remains in the area that have been built upon.

“There’s parts of the cemetery,” Dhody said, “that we can’t access because of another building. There might be people buried there that we’ll not be able to access.”

If bones are found on a construction site, the contractors are required to immediately suspend operations and contact the land owner, the architect, and police. State laws differ on contacting other authorities, such as medical examiners and the state archaeologist. Due to the cost of halting production, it is not unheard of for contractors to look the other way, though such actions can result in high fines and legal fallout.

It’s not all bad news for the Philadelphia construction company. The builders are still on the clock, aiding in the excavation, though the detailed work is being done by experts. Kimberlee Moran, a professor and the director of the forensic center at Rutgers University has a crew of twelve students working to remove the remains. “Some coffins are really beautiful and quite intact,” she said. “Some are just an outline in the soil—they’re completely gone.”

“It isn’t every day you find a historic cemetery. It’s a real window into the past and into the demographics of Philadelphia at that time.”

Analysis will reveal age, sex, race and physical traumas, as well as many of their lifestyle habits.

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