Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 1, 2011
Byline: Sandy Bauers
Centuries of history dug up in a year
With all the development that has occurred in Philadelphia, archaeologists thought it unlikely they would ever find significant remnants of early Native American cultures.
Those artifacts would have been deeply buried, carted away, or crushed.
But not long ago, along I-95 in North Philadelphia, they uncovered tobacco pipes, arrowheads, pottery, and other Native American artifacts dating back 3,000 years.
Near Mount Holly, they have begun to unearth portions of the African American community of Timbuctoo, founded in the 1820s and a station on the Underground Railroad.
Many of the thousands of artifacts collected so far elicit memories — and rich stories — from descendants of the original residents.
In Bucks County, at the former site of an old store, diggers came across six souvenir pins produced during the Spanish-American War in 1898. They show Uncle Sam marching with a backpack and rifle and the words Bound for Cuba, Gosh Darn YER!
It has been a banner year for the region's archaeologists, who put on a daylong show-and-tell at the National Constitution Center Saturday.
The I-95 discoveries have, perhaps, been some of the most rewarding, partly because the highway itself was built before laws requiring archaeological surveys for such projects were enacted.
Uncountable artifacts and unknowable portions of Philadelphia's history were lost when the roadbed was dug through Center City, archaeologists say.
But now, laws are in place to prevent that from happening again. With the widening of I-95 north of Girard Avenue, researchers excavating a thin ribbon of land next to the highway can see far into the past.
"It's a time capsule," said Patrice L. Jeppson, secretary of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, a nonprofit organization that cosponsored the event. "It's going right through a whole bunch of neighborhoods."
They've found a pair of 18th-century spectacles in a privy in Kensington.
They've recovered round glass objects called witch balls, meant to ward off evil, in Fishtown.
"It's still early, but the results already are astonishing," said Jed Levin, chief of the history branch at Independence National Historical Park, another event sponsor.
Archaeologists are closely watching two initiatives in Philadelphia — the 2035 comprehensive plan and the master plan for the Delaware waterfront.
Both call for improved preservation of historical resources, but details have yet to be worked out, said Douglas Mooney, president of the forum.
If the section along the river, one of the oldest parts of Philadelphia, is not protected, "the amount of devastation to the city's history would make the loss of history that came with I-95 look like a drop in the bucket," said Mooney, who is an archaeologist with URS Corp., an engineering firm, and is leading the I-95 digs.
He said he expects the waterfront to resemble a rich layer cake of city history.
Jeppson said archaeology provides a window into the everyday lives of everyday people.
"Unless you're famous, you're not going to be in the records of the past," she said. But this is "the common life experience. It's the stuff that's so mundane that no one writes it down."
It's a new look at a German redware kiln in Trappe, Montgomery County, where students are uncovering fireboxes and a cistern.
It's a fuller understanding of the Joanna Furnace, an ironworks in Berks County, where volunteers have been trying to discern the footprint of a wheelwright's shop.
In addition to the Native American sites, one of the most surprising recent discoveries at Philadelphia sites is colonoware, a utilitarian pottery found throughout the American south in places where African Americans have lived.
And now here? "Part of me says this shouldn't be surprising," Jeppson said. Nevertheless, it is changing how historians view the lives of the 2,000 free black people who lived in the city in 1800.
"That's a large number of people. What was their life like? There are virtually no records," Jeppson said. "So we're finding things about their lives. In this case, we're picking up colonoware."
The Constitution Center was a propitious place to hold the forum. Before it was built, archaeologists excavated the site, recovering more than a million artifacts spanning thousands of years of Philadelphia history.
Those bits of history are still being processed and studied.