Philadelphia — At the controls of a hydraulic excavator, Mayor John Street hoisted the first mound of dirt from an archeological site on Independence Mall yesterday.
The dig was in commemoration of the slaves held by former president George Washington and John Adams centuries ago. It will supplement the site of the President's House, where an architectural design was announced last month of a proposed monument that will be built adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center.
The dig is designed to determine if there are any artifacts in the ground that might tell more about the people who lived and worked in the President's House, especially the slaves.
"We have a long history of archaeology in this park and it's been feral ground for generations of archaeologists," said Dennis Reidenbach, superintendent of Independence National Historic Park said. "Archeology started here in the 1950s and continued ever since. We are now sifting the soil for clues of the past."
A three- to six-week painstaking process of identifying and removing archaeological features started yesterday. An oversight committee will be responsible for tracking the dig and the construction of the President's House. Members from the African American Museum, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress, the Independence Hall Association, the Pennsylvania Historical Association and others make up the oversight committee.
"We're here because we're digging for the truth," said Street, addressing young people from several local high schools.
"We spent $1.5 million on this project. At the end of the day we wanted something to make a statement, to recognize that there were slaves here. Right when we were declaring and setting up a free country, we were harboring slaves on this free site. It is our goal that when people see the Liberty Bell, they must also understand there was a great tragedy that took place here. The achievements of this great country were done on the backs of people who did not have the opportunities you have."
The President's House archaeological team will be led by the URS Group, a global engineering design firm, as well as a coalition of nationally recognized experts. Congressmen Bob Brady and Chaka Fattah were instrumental in securing funding from a federal grant to complete the project.
Reidenbach said a team of archaeologists will focus on previously unexcavated areas of what was once Washington's and Adams' yard. He said whatever findings are unearthed will most likely yield clues about life in the house. The dig is predominately expected to explore shaft features — historic pits lined with brick or stone that were once used mostly as outhouses and wells. Diggers are also hoping to find remnants of the presidents' mansion's original walls to help determine its exact location.
"The President's House project demonstrates that historic ground still holds the promise of discoveries yet unimagined," Reidenbach said. "As we turn to new research questions, archaeology in the park may quickly uncover previously neglected aspects of our nation's founding and early years."
Street, after finishing his statements, climbed in the seat of a heavy-duty hydraulic shovel and pierced the ground in a ceremonial first step towards the excavation.
Several archaeologists, including Cheryl LaRoche, a historical archaeologist, said many initial assumptions and methods that helped formulate historical archeology could be found in Independence Park.
"This is a historically significant project that sheds light on some juxtaposition of slavery in the north," LaRoche said. "Archeology is the most hidden, valued hand maiden for African Americans to look at our history from a different angle."
A crude stage area was erected next to the site of the dig, to allow tourists to view it from a safe distance. Project administrators expect a web-cam to be set up to view the archeology at work from any computer. As a joint project of Independence National Historic Park and the city, the President's House dig will be funded by the city and conducted under the direction of National Park Service Archeologist Jed Levin.