Dealing With Urban Archaeological Finds, an Example from Philadelphia


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Ken Basalik, PhD, CHRS, Inc.

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Dealing With Urban Archaeological Finds, an Example from Philadelphia

  1. 1. Look what we found … so what do we do now? Dealing with urban archaeological finds, an example from Philadelphia by Kenneth J. Basalik, Ph.D. (CHRS, Inc.) Urban Archaeology is typified by the investigation of landscapes with complexdevelopmental histories that result in intricate soil stratigraphy and buried cultural components.When exploring these multifaceted areas the non-archaeologist sees disturbances, the urbanarchaeologist sees the potential for the extraordinary. If significant archaeological remains areencountered, data recovery investigations in an urban setting can be expensive. For the non-archaeologist who saw a disturbed landscape, such costs are unexpected. This is particularly truefor enhancement projects, where non-State agency officials often do not fully consider the costof environmental and archaeological studies when budgeting their projects. This paper provides aproject example of an unexpected urban find on a transportation enhancement project in an urbansetting. The work was performed in Logan Square in the City of Philadelphia The project was located in an area of Logan Square fronting the Cathedral Basilica of SaintsPeter and Paul is commonly referred to as Sister Cities Plaza. Center City District in conjunctionwith the Federal Highway Administration proposed to make improvements to Sister Cities Plazato attract greater use by a diverse population of all ages, while revitalizing this prominentlandscape and enhancing views to and from the Cathedral. New elements include a re-designedplaza and fountain commemorating Philadelphia’s Sister Cities, a Children’s Discovery Garden,and a café with a multi-purpose educational and community room. Logan square is one of five squares in the City [slide 2]. Centre Square is now the locationof City Hall. Northeast square is now Franklin Square, Southwest Square is now Rittenhouse
  2. 2. Square; Southeast Square is now Washington Square and Northwest Square is now LoganSquare. Logan Square, like other squares in the city, was open space that witnessed a variety ofactivities. Scharf and Westcott’s History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 contained severalreferences to the use of the public square as a Potter’s Field during the early nineteenth century[slide 3]. Although the date of the earliest interments is not known, it is presumed that theresidents of the western section of Philadelphia employed the nearby square for burial purposesout of convenience, rather than using the distant Southeast (now Washington) Square. Upon theclosing of Washington Square to interments in 1794, additional repositories for the city’s deadwere established and the formal title of “Potter’s Field” was transferred to Logan Square.According to Scharf and Westcott, a part of Logan Square had also been used as a graveyard forthe German Reformed Church. Philadelphia City Council declared in 1812 that “for aconsiderable time the public square situated on the north side of Sassafras [now Race St.] and onthe east and west sides of Schuylkill Fourth and Fifth Streets had without any authority beenused as a place of interment for the bodies of persons dying at the almshouse, at the State prison,and at the Pennsylvania Hospital, and of strangers not belonging to any religious society.” Boththe unauthorized use of the square and the official burials of the city were deemed, in 1812, to beinappropriate and an infringement upon the rights of Philadelphians, and all public squares ofPhiladelphia were closed to burials on July 10th of that year. [slide 4]. The discontinuation of thesquare as a burial ground did not preclude the use of the land as a public execution ground,although this practice was halted subsequent to the hanging of murderer William Gross in LoganSquare on February 7, 1823.
  3. 3. Between the discontinuation of the square’s use as a burying ground and the final publicexecution, the square was leased from the City by the adjacent Orphan’s Society for use as apasture-ground. In an act of the City Council in May 1825, the names of the primary publicsquares of Philadelphia were officially changed, and Northwest Square became Logan Square,after William Penn’s secretary and prominent Philadelphian, James Logan. In 1853, City Council authorized the enclosure of the primary public squares with ironrailings, thereby formalizing their boundaries and limiting the type of public use of the spaces toa park like setting. [slide 5] By 1859 the landscaping of Logan Square had been formalized, withthe planting of trees, and the establishing of walkways This formal park setting did not prevent Logan Square [slide 6] from being the site of theGreat Sanitary Fair of 1864, which involved the erection of temporary structures covering theentire square. An effort to raise funds for the care of sick and wounded military of the Civil War,this Great Fair was an enormous undertaking lasting three weeks. [slide 7] The Square was returned to its park setting and remained in this condition through the late19th and early twentieth centuries [slide 8]. The installation of the traffic circle and Swann Fountain in Logan Square [slide 9]encompassed all of the land between Vine, 18th, Race, and 20th Streets and was completed in1924. Contained within this area, however, is the inclusion of large pockets of green space thatare used as recreational areas that were not subjected to construction or paving. Archaeology was performed in parts of the Sister Cities Plaza portion of Logan Square. Thework consisted of examining the portions of the site where more than surfical disturbances wereto take place [slide 10]
  4. 4. Mechanical stripping reveals Fifty eight grave shafts within the APE. Fifty three of thegraves [slide 11] were found clustered together in the southeastern portion of the proposedconstruction impacts located adjacent to 18th Street and directly across the street from theBasilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The graves were regularly spaced and laid out in closelypacked rows, roughly parallel to 18th Street. . The majority of the graves were pinched toed in shape [slide 12]. The number and regularplacement of the graves is consistent with a formal cemetery and suggests that the burialsrepresent a portion of the German Reformed Church graveyard that was report by Scharf andWestcott. So here we were. We had found a large number of burials within the APE that would bedisturbed by the project. Given the vast changes to Logan Square, the client had assumed adisturbed landscape. There had initially been no money set aside for archaeology. Money hadbeen found for a limited Phase I archaeological survey, but now as many as 58 burials could beimpacted. As much as I personally would have relished the excavation of the burials, we neededanother option. Excavation the burials had legal, ethical, social, and political ramifications inaddition to funding issues. The solution was incredibly simple and a solution that is often overlooked by archaeologists.The solution was to talk with the architects. [Slide 13] By working directly with the design teamwe could place the problem before them and discuss the ramifications of each action. Avoidancewas the best alternative, but given the limited area examined and the presence of scatter burialselsewhere on the site moving elements around on the site, might mean more archaeology. Pluscertain elements, such as utilities, could not easily be moved. Ultimately a solution was found.The design was revised to limit the depth of the foundation and utility trenches to a point above
  5. 5. where the tops of the burials were encountered. To ensure that no inadvertent exposure wouldoccur the archaeological investigation were covered with a white sand to identify the location oftop of burial and an archaeological monitor was present during the excavations associated withthe foundation fabrication and utility installation. This solution could not be used for the mainutility box hook up. The box needed to be set deep enough to access utilities in the street andprovide sufficient room. Fortunately, it was possible to move the box to a location thatarchaeological testing had indicated contained no burials. Where the non-archaeologists saw disturbances, the urban archaeologist found theextraordinary and was the penny pinching hero of the day, rather than the expensive goat. In theend, the burials were protected and the project moved forward [Slide 14].