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Source: The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology — Cambridge University Press
Date: October 2006
Byline: Tadhg O'Keeffe and Rebecca Yamin

Urban Historical Archaeology

Excerpt from Chapter 6 of "The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology" Edited by Dan Hicks, University of Bristol

In 1950 the three blocks in front of Independence Hall, where the country's declaration of Independence was signed, were cleared to create what was considered a more appropriate (and more fireproof) context for the Hall. Patriotic fervor in the post-World War II era had elevated Independence Hall as a symbol of freedom and the surrounding blocks, also cleared, became Independence National Historical Park. No archaeological investigations were conducted on the three blocks (now known as Independence Mall) in front of Independence Hall although some were conducted elsewhere in the park. The redesign of Independence Mall in the 1990s, however, did require archaeology and the excavation of the site of a new building for the Liberty Bell produced, among other things, an archaeological feature in the backyard of the house where George Washington and John Adams lived during their presidencies while the fledgling federal government was seated in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1800.

The feature measured 13.5 feet (4.1 metres) in diameter, and was an eight-sided, stone-lined pit built to hold ice. The superstructure had clearly been removed when the house on the property was demolished in 1832. It seemed to the archaeologists involved in the excavation that the icehouse feature would be a useful focal point for discussing the work that was done by enslaved Africans and indentured servants to support the elite presidential residence. They recommended that the National Park Service incorporate the feature into the new landscape. For a variety of reasons the Park Service did not find that possible, and they arranged for the feature to be filled with gravel and buried it. The archaeologists proceeded to excavate other backyard features within the Liberty Bell Center site, although none related to the President's House.

Not long after the icehouse was buried, a major historian, in league with a local researcher, began to campaign for including a discussion of George Washington's slaves in the interpretive materials presented in the new Liberty Bell Center. The researcher claimed that George Washington had converted a smoke house between the kitchen and stables into slave quarters (Lawler 2002) and members of the local African-American community began to call for an excavation. Unfortunately the house and all other structures except the stone-lined octagonal hole in the ground had been destroyed in 1832 and replaced with three commercial buildings with basements. No archaeology had been conducted at the former location of the slave quarters because it lay outside the development area, and there was no evidence that any remains of the slave quarters survived. The only feature that could have served their purpose already lay partially buried beneath the Liberty Bell Center. It is clear that if the icehouse feature had been retained in the landscape it would have been a powerful link to an unremembered past: a practical example of how past and present are bound up together in the everyday practice of urban archaeology.


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