This past March, Anna Dhody got a phone call that put her day in ruins.
Dhody is a forensic anthropologist and the curator of the Mütter Museum, Philadelphia’s famed collection of anatomical curios. On the line was a contractor who’d spent the day digging the foundation for what will eventually become a 10-story apartment building at 218 Arch Street, a few blocks from the Delaware River. An earlier prediction of Dhody’s had come true, the caller told her—as they excavated, they had, indeed, run into more bones. How many? “A lot more,” said the voice on the other end.
Dhody and her friend Kimberlee Moran, the director of forensics at Rutgers-Camden University, had already helped these particular contractors deal with a box of bones they had found a few months earlier. Figuring they could easily reprise this roll, the two headed on over. “It wasn’t until we got there that we realized what ‘a lot more’ meant,” Dhody says. “[We found] coffins four-deep. It was very daunting.”
With the help of volunteer archaeologists from up and down the U.S. East Coast—as well as the contractors and their handy cranes—Dhody and Moran spent the next few days turning the construction site into an archaeological dig. All told, they ended up with 77 colonial-era coffins, each stuffed with bones and dirt.
Because the remains were unmarked, immediate identification isn’t possible, but the team is working hard to take care of the site accordingly.