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Source: The Bulletin
Date: October 9, 2008
Byline: Rachel Dukeman

Unearthing Philly History

Philadelphia — What do skeletons from a West Philadelphia cemetery, dirt from the Delaware River and shards of broken glass have in common?

They're all found in Philadelphia archaeological excavations, which you can discover for yourself — free of charge — from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday at the Living History Center. "Explore Philadelphia's Hidden Past: A 2008 Archaeology Month Celebration!" is jointly sponsored by the Independence National Historical Park and the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum. During a full day of free archaeological programs, films, lectures and displays, visitors and scholars will explore the historical relevance of Philadelphia's archaeological excavations.

"This is an annual event that we do each October to celebrate archaeology month," said Deborah Miller, assistant laboratory director with the National Park Service.

In its fourth year, the daylong program showcases some of the new discoveries made at archaeological excavations in historic Philadelphia.

"Archaeology is a little difficult as far as 'new' discoveries are concerned," explained Ms. Miller. "At 11 a.m. on Saturday, the program 'The Lady and the Lion and George Zorn' is actually about part of the President's House site [located on this site from 1790-1800]. But basically, there was a tobacco shop there later in the 19th century."

Ms. Miller referred to one of the groundbreaking discoveries at an archaeological excavation of the President's House in which artifacts depicting the lives of African slaves were unearthed. From 1790 to 1800, the presidential "White House" was in Philadelphia, while Philadelphia served as the capital city. The archaeological site exposed slave quarters for some of George Washington's nine slaves. Excavations like this site are the reason these archaeological digs are essential to uncovering our history.

"The mission of the forum is to raise awareness that there is a tremendous amount of Philadelphia history that is still underground," Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, said. "That's part of the history of Philadelphia that belongs to all of our citizens."

Archaeologists find a variety of discoveries in these excavations, from shards of glass to bones, to broken ceramics. Knowing the materials, the period in history, and what they were used for, is what gives these items their historical relevance.

"Little girls today play with toy tea sets and so did girls 200 years ago," Ms. Miller said. So when they found a centuries-old miniature teacup, the archaeologists were able to start a collection of children's playthings.

"My presentation will be on the National Constitution Center site, an update on our progress, and mainly concerned with children's artifacts," Ms. Miller said.

Ms. Miller's talk on the lives of children will be at 2 p.m., Saturday. Additionally, other local archaeologists will give brief informational talks at the Living History Center on 3rd Street between Chestnut and Walnut. The lectures will cover various topics, one of which will focus on the Blockley Almshouse Cemetery, which was uncovered during construction in West Philadelphia. The condition of the gravesites — including mass graves in West Philadelphia — shed insight on the medical conditions and societal standards of 19th-century Philadelphia.

For more information, visit www.phillyarchaeology.org.

 

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