Philadelphia History Gleaned from Historical Human Remains, Thanks to Rutgers–Camden Contingent

By Tom McLaughlin

Historical human remains, discovered at a Philadelphia construction site, will be properly reinterred in another location, thanks to exhaustive efforts made by Rutgers University–Camden forensic scientists and students, working in collaboration with a network of forensics professionals.

Kimberlee Moran

Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor and director of forensics center at Rutgers–Camden, explains that the construction site at 218 Arch Street was once home to the First Baptist Church Burial Ground, which was established in 1707. The remains were believed to have been exhumed and relocated to “what was then considered the suburbs” at Mount Moriah Cemetery between 1859 and 1860.

The Rutgers–Camden contingent (along with Anna Dhody, curator of the Mütter Museum; a team from Mount Moriah Cemetery; and professionals with Forensic Archeology Recovery) is now in the process of recovering – “as completely as possible and with the utmost respect” – each individual at the site, and mitigating any damage that the construction may cause.

The remains – now totaling more than 50 and counting – will then be taken to a forensic-osteology lab at Rutgers–Camden, where they will be documented, cleaned, and analyzed to determine such matters as the sex, ethnicity, and the age at death. Moran anticipates that the lab component of the project will last well into the summer.

“We’ll try to find out anything that these bones can tell us about who these people were in life,” says Moran. “This is a rare opportunity to learn as much as we can about the earliest residents of Philadelphia. Ultimately, we want to reinter them at Mount Moriah Cemetery with the rest of the remains from this time period.”

Moran adds that it is an unprecedented chance for Rutgers–Camden undergraduates to gain hands-on experience in the field.

“They are getting real-world experience that you could never duplicate in a classroom,” says Moran, who also regularly assists law-enforcement agencies in the active investigations of human remains, and has been conducting training programs for law-enforcement professionals for several years at the Rutgers Pinelands Field Station in New Lisbon.

As Moran explains, a contractor for PMC Properties discovered the remains in fall 2016 and the company contacted the medical examiner’s office. After the remains were deemed to be historic, the company turned to the Philadelphia Historic Commission and an article reporting their findings, titled “Old bones found – and nobody’s in charge,” was published on Philly.com.

When Moran read the article, she jumped at the chance to offer her assistance and enlisted the support of her colleagues at the Mütter Museum, for whom she serves as a consulting forensic archeologist.

“I regularly collaborate with the Mütter Museum on a variety of projects, so when I read about the problem that the developer was having, naturally the project piqued my interest,” she says.

When Moran spoke with the contractor and learned how the bones were discovered, she informed them that they were likely to find more. Sure enough, on Feb. 20, the forensic scientist received a call saying that the construction crew was indeed finding more remains.

“I think that’s when it really hit them,” she says, “and they really saw the extent of what they were dealing with.”

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