Friday, July 2, 2010

Celebrating Independence Day

It seemed appropriate to continue with the Philadelphia theme as this weekend we celebrate Independence Day. In 1976 while our nation was celebrating its bicentennial a group of archaeologists excavated a section of old Philadelphia treading in the footsteps of our forefathers. The area was once known as the city’s printing section; housing Benjamin Franklin’s first printing office and where he launched the countries first monthly magazine The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle for all the British Plantations in America.

The excavations were undertaken by Penn DOT due to the construction of an access ramp for traffic between the Penns Landing Development and Market Street over a section of Interstate 95. It included the demolition of structures from Market Street to Church Street and between Front and Second Street, a total of 34 properties. The firm of Abraham Levy Architect, under the direction of Herbert Levy and Charles Hunter, was hired to conduct archaeological salvage prior to demolition. The artifacts recovered from this excavation are varied and prolific spanning the time of Philadelphia’s existence, from its informal founding in 1682 to the structures and debris current to the time of excavation, 1976.

It was in the basements of these structures, under floor boards, brick pavers and concrete that “stains” or features emerged. Many of these features were found to be either privies or wells that had been filled over time with domestic trash; including ceramics, glass stemware and bottles, butchered faunal remains and personal items like smoking pipes, coins and buttons. Using the diagnostic artifacts archaeologists were able to date the wells and the layers within them.

One such well, located at 121-123 (old #37-39) Market Street and sealed about 1760 contained an assemblage of artifacts that ranged from pipe stems to wine glasses, a copper William III half penny (1694-1702) and the remains of over 160 separate ceramic vessels. The ceramics from this feature included a group of slip decorated earthenware. Thanks to the research of Dr. David Orr the origins of these slipware vessels were traced to Staffordshire England; but even more remarkably he was able to establish a link between them and their creator, Samuel Malkin (1688-1741). In his article Samuel Malkin in Philadelphia: a Remarkable Slipware Assemblage, published in the journal Ceramics in America, 2003; Dr. Orr describes Malkin’s unique style of “relief-decorated and press-molded earthenware”. A closer look at Samuel Malkin’s Sun Plate can be had by visiting the second floor Archaeology Gallery of The Pennsylvania State Museum.

Unfortunately due to time and budget constraints at the time of excavation as well as the volume of material recovered only a portion of the artifacts from this Market Street Collection have ever been analyzed. They fall into the category of incredible potential, awaiting a researcher like Dr. David Orr to look a little closer in an effort to put together another puzzle piece of our nation’s amazing heritage.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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