I’m Makenna Lenover ’19, an anthropology major, biology minor, and writer for Bryn Mawr Communications. I’ve been fortunate to participate in an anthropology praxis course, and here is a glimpse into the class and project.
In September of 2016, human remains were uncovered at a construction site in Old City Philadelphia. Over the next few months, it emerged the location was on the site of the historic cemetery associated with the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. The congregation and cemetery closed in 1859 and the remains were supposed to have been relocated to Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia. The effort to catalog and finally move the remains has been dubbed “The Arch Street Project.”
Excavations of the site were conducted in early to mid-2017, and the researchers involved have until 2023, when the bones are to be re-interred at Mount Moriah, to finish the processing and analysis of the skeletal and material culture remains.
Six Bryn Mawr and Haverford anthropology majors, including myself, are currently involved in the Arch Street Project through the anthropology praxis seminar, “Philadelphia’s Buried Past.”
“Having such a large sample size, around 500 burials, has allowed us to ask a diverse set of research questions," says Kimberlee Moran '00, Associate Teaching Professor at Rutgers University-Camden and the leader of the project. "No one university or college has all the experts required to cover everything we want to learn, so cross-institutional, multidisciplinary collaborations are essential to maximize the research potential of the Arch Street Project.”
Moran is joined by senior researchers George Leader (The College of New Jersey and University of Pennsylvania), Anna Dhody (Mütter Museum), Nicholas Bonneau (University of Notre Dame), and Jared Beatrice (The College of New Jersey), as well as local experts Allison Grunwald and Claire Gold.
Bryn Mawr Assistant Professor of Anthropology Maja Šešelj has been involved with the project since last year, and developed this course to assist the project and provide a hands-on opportunity for students interested in biological anthropology.
“As soon as I found out about the Arch Street Project, I knew I wanted to get involved," says Šešelj. "In addition to the students getting valuable hands-on experience, I wanted us to do right by the people who were recovered during the salvage portion of the excavation by telling their stories based on what’s been preserved in their bones. As osteologists, we use our expertise in assessing skeletal remains to reconstruct people’s identities during life, and to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves.”
Each week, the students travel to the Rutgers University-Camden campus, where we work with the commingled skeletal remains housed at the university. Currently, we are cleaning and documenting the remains and estimating how many individuals are represented among them. Next, we will estimate biological profiles (age, sex, geographic ancestry, stature, and assessments of trauma and pathology) of the individuals.
Two students in the class have used the opportunity to develop their senior anthropology thesis research projects on this material.
“Working on the Arch Street Project has given me a lot of experience handling and identifying human remains," says Tamsin Myers (HC '19). "Working there is providing a great base on which I can build my education and future research.”
In addition to our work this semester, several other Bryn Mawr anthropology majors have assisted with the analyses of material culture and osteological work at the Mütter Museum, another partner institution on the project.
“I have been able to work with both human remains and material artifacts over the past two semesters," says Caitlin Smith '19, "and those opportunities have not only reaffirmed my interest in giving a voice to people in the past, but they have also shown me the importance of a multidisciplinary approach in such a project as it enriches the fields that the project encompasses.”
The Civic Engagement Office’s Praxis Fieldwork Seminar program enables students to travel to a field site, work with the field coordinator, and earn credit for their work. When students aren’t in the lab at Rutgers-Camden, we are sharpening our anthropological skills in Bryn Mawr’s own anthropology lab. Going forward, our class will write blog posts for the Arch Street Project’s website, and create an exhibition in the anthropology gallery space in Dalton Hall about the project and our work. We also will present our semester’s work at the Praxis Poster Session hosted by LILAC.
For more information on the historic First Baptist Church cemetery, visit the Arch Street Project website and follow the project on social media. The project focuses on open access information, with news links, blog posts on findings, and posts featuring artifacts and events.