Friday, November 21, 2014

P is for Philadelphia

Philadelphia Family Court House site (36Ph161) profile of excavation block

Continuing on the alphabetical trail of archaeology, this week TWIPA lands on the letter P. Since the conclusion of fieldwork at Fort Hunter this fall, the Section of Archaeology has been busy receiving a steady stream of cultural resource management collections from a variety of development projects including; Turnpike improvements, road realignments, bridge replacements, and a handful of natural gas pipelines. Another recent submission of artifacts to the museum is the result of a municipal office building project, and, for the purposes of this week’s post, is conveniently located in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is no stranger to urban archaeology. From the National Park Service excavations in the 1950s for Independence Mall, to major transportation corridor projects of the 1970s and 1980s, and still more recent projects like the Metropolitan Detention Center and the National Constitution Center, a great deal of the city’s archaeological heritage has been documented for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians and the Nation at large. Indeed, no fewer than 64 registered archaeological sites, most of them historic domestic sites, have been identified within a one mile radius of this particular project (Gall, et al 2012).

project area prior to excavation

In 2010, Richard Grubb & Associates Inc. was contracted to conduct an archaeological survey, evaluation and subsequent mitigation at the site of a new office building to be constructed for the City of Philadelphia’s Family Court House. Located on the northwest corner of 15th and Arch Streets, the project APE, or area of potential effects, was at the onset paved with asphalt and being used as a parking lot. 

With the aid of historic fire insurance maps, portions of the project area were designated as having either high, medium, or low archaeological sensitivity, based on the presence or absence of basements of no longer extant buildings, and also areas where there is no record of any structures ever have being built. Accordingly, more resources were expended investigating areas identified as having high and medium sensitivity, although some sampling of low sensitivity areas took place as well.

brick cellar floor feature

brick lined shaft feature

Trench excavations within the project area revealed a number of archaeological features that can be divided into two general categories. The first, are structural remains of former house lots dating from the early through middle 19th Century, and are represented by foundation walls, brick cellar floors, a fireplace, and shaft features including a well/cistern and brick lined privy. The second type of feature consist of the “buried A horizon” or the original historic ground surface containing slightly earlier late 18th through early 19th Century deposits along with associated sheet middens and refuse pits.

shell sheet midden feature

ceramic sherd refuse pit feature

Of the over 35,000 artifacts recovered, nearly one half fall into the domestic category, including coarse and refined earthenware ceramics, glass tablewares and containers, and dietary animal bone. Another quarter of the finds consist of architectural debris such as large quantities brick and window glass, and lesser amounts of nails and roofing slate. Although the fewest in number, small finds and miscellaneous objects are often the most personal finds, and are therefore generally more interesting. Examples from the site include a honey colored gun flint, a bone toothbrush fragment, an assortment of buttons and pins, and clay tobacco pipe fragments.

personal items recovered from 36Ph161
clay smoking pipe fragments recovered from 36Ph161

Detailed review of the available historic documentation such as tax records, deed transfers and population census data was critical in enabling the archaeologists to reconnect the recovered artifacts to specific family groups of differing socio-economic status during the 1780s through the 1840s. The project area underwent drastic changes throughout its history, from pastoral land on the edge of the growing colonial city in the late 18th Century to residential and ultimately commercial use of the area through the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The archaeological excavation conducted for the Philadelphia Family Court House site and the analysis of the artifacts recovered offer a unique window into the changing lifestyles and consumption patterns of the inhabitants of this section of the city over time, and of the changing landscape of the city itself.


(2012) Gall, Michael J.; Michael Tomkins; Robert Lore; Amy Raes
Living on the Edge: Phase IB/II/III Archaeological Survey Philadelphia Family Court House 1501-1511 Arch Street City of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County Pennsylvania  Richard Grubb & Associates, Inc.

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

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