Friday, June 28, 2013

Philadelphia County

This week our journey through our archaeological heritage takes us to Philadelphia County. The present day physical environment of the county is essentially as it was when Europeans first set foot here sometime around 1550 AD, when traders and trappers began their entrepreneurial relationship with the native Indians. Located in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia County is divided by two physiographic provinces: Piedmont Upland Section to the north and the Atlantic Coastal Plain to the south. The metamorphosed Wissahickon schist has its granite counterpart locally referred to as Swarthmore granodiorite. Other rock types found in the county include gneiss, limestone, dolomite and serpentine - a soft carvable rock used in building construction and hard-scaping. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service the principal county soil types are Urban land Chester association and Urban land Howell Association which are considered modified deep soils.

The principal watersheds of Philadelphia County are the Delaware River, Schuylkill River, Cobbs Creek, Pennypack Creek and Wissahickon Creek. These, and a number of smaller creeks that flow to the Delaware River drain a total area of 135 square miles.

Philadelphia County is surrounded by Bucks, Delaware and Montgomery counties on the southwest, west and north and by the Delaware River on the east. Pennsylvania’s only east coast seaport, Philadelphia, was founded after treaties were signed between William Penn and the Lenape Indians. According to historians there were eight Lenape settlements in the county during the 18th century (Cacchione and Mion 1934; Donahoo 1928; Weslager 1956). These Indian towns were located at the junctures of streams and rivers and along their banks. Part of William Penn’s original land acquisition was eventually settled by Scandinavian peoples, however, since then the county has developed into a much more diverse population of over 1.5 million people.

The Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey (P.A.S.S.) files list 161 archaeological sites in Philadelphia County. The list includes 152 Historic and 17 prehistoric components. Owing to the county’s low terrain, the majority of these sites are located on terraces and elevated floodplain features. Only 32 of the sites occupy upland settings and many of these are located in the Piedmont Upland Section setting located in the north half of the county.

More than half of the recorded historic sites are of 19th century age followed by 18th and 20th century sites in nearly equal numbers. Breaking these sites down into functional categories show that most were domestic structures and farmsteads. Fewer are classified as commercial and industrial and nine others are not deemed as specific to any category.

The low number of prehistoric sites (n=17) are representative of the Middle Archaic through the Late Woodland Periods. The number of sites is so small and the general region so urbanized as to preclude, in a quantifiable manner, the true distribution of prehistoric sites that once existed in Philadelphia County.
Since the 1950’s there have been more than 150 archaeological site excavations in and around the City of Philadelphia (Cotter, Roberts and Parrington 1992). As noted in the P.A.S.S. files most of these sites relate to the Historic Colonial Period with a lesser number prehistoric (cf. Butler 1947, Rankin 1013). For brevity sake this week’s blog will only highlight a few of these investigations.

Independence Hall

Independence National Historic Park
This 55 acre tract is located near the center of Philadelphia County just to the north of Route 1. Within its confines is a series of important historical/archaeological sites that relate to the “Old City” historic district where Independence Hall was built and later used as a meeting house of the Second Continental Congress and the site of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Slate Roof House (one of the residences of William Penn) and Franklin Court, the location where Benjamin Franklin had built his house, were also investigated. Over the years other archaeological projects within the Park were undertaken, thereby yielding interesting discoveries, and the archaeology at Independence Square revealed many artifacts relating to the occupation of the property. Objects lost or intentionally discarded were common on and around the square. All told, the inventory exceeded 30,000 objects from prehistoric spearheads that were thousands of years old to pieces of glass and stoneware dating to the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, park archaeologists identified three house foundations along with a brick and stone lined well and privy pits. Evidence of the British occupation during the Revolutionary War was unearthed in the form of cannon and musket balls and other military hardware.

First African Baptist Church Cemetery excavation plan view

First African Baptist Church Cemetery
As required by Federal law, construction projects impacting potential archaeological and historically significant sites, must undertake surveys and excavations to identify, evaluate and excavate sites when necessary. Such was the case at Tenth and Vine streets in the City of Philadelphia when the cemetery of the First African Baptist Church was rediscovered. The early to mid 19th century cemetery was uncovered during construction monitoring operations for the Commuter Rail Tunnel in Center City Philadelphia. Some of the graves were displaced beneath macadam and fill when the foundations of row houses and privies were dug into the old cemetery during the 19th century.

In 1983 John Milner Associates archaeologists were responsible for the recovery and analysis  of the remains which were later reburied at Eden Cemetery in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Over the course of two field seasons 140 individuals ranging in age from only 14 years to 45 years were exhumed and the contents studied for osteological and burial custom information.  Children and infants accounted for about half of the individuals buried in the cemetery. Grave shafts held from one to as many as five individuals, stacked one on top of another.

Of special note were a number of individuals who had ceramic plates placed over their stomachs and a coin placed near the head. In some instances, leather shoes were placed on top of the coffin lid. These unusual discoveries indicated to the archaeologists that old African customs survived in the families of the deceased where as it was determined that material objects were useful in the afterlife, a belief still held by many world cultures.

"Old City" Philadelphia 

PennDOT I-95/GIR Improvement Project
An archaeological investigation by URS Corporation contracted by PennDOT to survey and evaluate prehistoric and historic cultural resources existing along a three mile section of I-95 Corridor for road and intersection improvements recovered significant archaeological sites. (Rankin 2013). This section of the corridor is near Philadelphia’s Delaware River and within the Lower Delaware Valley Coastal Plain, an exceptional and ideal environmental setting and location for prehistoric sites. The six prehistoric sites identified during the survey range in time from the Late Archaic through Late Woodland periods and have yielded a range of diagnostic stone projectile points and associated tools typical of the established types for the region (Custer 2001).

Attempts at linking Native American sites to historically known Indian towns has always been a challenge for archaeologists working in the eastern United States, a goal that is rarely achieved. The six sites located within the I-95 Corridor Improvement project are in the area of three known Indian towns, Shackamaxon, Tumanaranaming and Cohocksink, that once existed in the Philadelphia area. Unfortunately, none of those locations could be linked to these Lenape settlements.
As stated earlier the information provided in today’s blog highlighting the archaeology of Philadelphia County is only briefly presented and the reader is referred to “The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia” (Cotter, Roberts and Parrington 1992) for a detailed in-depth discussion of the sites “in toto” and information about the detailed complexion of Philadelphia archaeology.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief tour through the archaeology of Philadelphia County. Visit us next week when we will feature Pike County.


Butler, Mary
1947       “Two Lenape Rockshelters near Philadelphia.” American Antiquity 12(4):246-255.

Cacchione and Mion
1934       “Philadelphia Region When Known as Coaquannock, ‘Grove of Tall Pines’, and as First Seen by the White Men, with Indian Villages, Aboriginal Names of localities, Streams and Islands, and Their Interpretation.” Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Map on file at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania.

Cotter, John L., Daniel G. Roberts and Michael Parrington
1992       The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia. A Barra Foundation Book, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Custer, Jay F.
2001       Classification Guide for Arrowheads and Spearpoints of Eastern Pennsylvania and the Central Middle Atlantic. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Donahoo, George P.
1928       Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania. Gateway Press.

Rankin, Jennifer C.
2013       Revisiting the Wolf Walk: Exploring Philadelphia’s Delaware River Waterfront. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 83(1):22-44.

1956       “Delaware Indian Villages at Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Archaeologist 26(3-4):178-180.

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

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