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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 6, 2002
Byline: Joseph M. Torsella, President and CEO National Constitution Center Philadelphia (Letter to the editor)

Archaeological site will not be harmed

The National Constitution Center was pleased to see the attention given to the emerging information about James Oronoke Dexter ("Bus depot plan will pave over history, critics say," Sept. 29). We are proud to say that information, contained in a draft National Park Service report, grows out of the center's multi-year archaeological project, to which the center has so far devoted more than $5 million.

The free African American community of which James Dexter was a part has been a special focus of that archaeology. We have excavated at least eight free African American households, approximately half of the free African American families that lived on the block during a 30-year period. Among them was the home of Israel Burgow, one of the 267 founding members of St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. We have recovered hundreds of artifacts from this community - some of which will be on display at the center.

We are not planning excavation of the James Dexter lot, though, because we are following the sound archaeological practice (and the National Park Service policy) of "preserve in place." That practice discourages digging up any potential archaeological site unless the site would be destroyed by construction, and supports leaving the archaeological record, where possible, undisturbed for future and presumably better research techniques.

Indeed, through two years of fieldwork we have worked hard not to disturb areas that could remain intact. Other such sites in the park include the home of Benjamin Smith Barton (a mentor to Meriwether Lewis), Betsy Ross' home, and the residence where James Madison lived during the Constitutional Convention.

The bus facility will have no impact whatsoever on whatever archaeological record may lie underneath because it essentially involves only surface construction and landscaping. Grading for the site happened many months ago, and had no impact, nor is future landscaping expected to have any impact.

But past construction likely destroyed the original site decades ago (meaning an excavation would probably be unsuccessful in any case). A recent review of the research shows that, as of 1958, there was a four-story building at the location. Such a building would have had a foundation deep enough to have destroyed the colonial level. Later, a retaining wall with a 20-foot deep foundation was built on a portion of the site, which would have had the same effect.

We are nevertheless excited, as others are, by the new information that is coming to light about James Dexter and the area in which he lived. Our museum will tell the story not just of the Constitutional Convention, but of how more than two centuries of Americans, from all backgrounds, have worked to bring about rule by "we, the people."


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