This summer I’m working for Anna Dhody, curator and director at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. There’s a bunch going on at the Mütter this summer and I’m really lucky because Anna has been so nice to let me jump back and forth between many projects! I’ve worked on a lot of different things so far: doing some smallpox and cholera research, collaborating with the Wistar Institute to find information on some older items in our collection, and, this week, working on their “Arch Street Project”. In March of last year, 408 human skeletons were unearthed on the site of an apartment building construction project at 218 Arch Street in Philly. The site was originally a burial ground for the First Baptist Church which had transferred to Mt. Moriah Cemetery after the church moved to Broad Street in 1860. As the construction project manager began uncovering more and more bones, it became apparent that some graves had been left behind and forgotten about during the move. A team of archaeologists came to map the graves and excavate the remains which have been in storage since then. The skeletons will be further studied at Rutgers University and potentially be identified. The project aims to have the skeletons reburied at Mount Moriah Cemetery by August 2020.
We have started the bone cleaning process this summer in preparation to send them to Rutgers. Since Haverford doesn’t offer any anatomy courses, this has been a fun and interesting way in learning about the human body! I’m learning what to look for in the skeleton to determine the age and sex of an individual, and it’s been fun trying to infer the life histories and cause of death of these individuals with the rest of the team. It’s amazing how much information you can gather at even this preliminary stage of study!
Along with cleaning the bones, I’ve been helping the archaeologists clean some of the material culture, which includes coffin handles, name plaques, and ceramics or other objects buried with the skeletons. Although a lot of the writing has faded, we’re hoping that we can determine what the plaques originally said (and maybe identify the individuals that way) using a scanning electron microscope. We also had a day where we used x-ray fluorescence to identify different metals present, information which can then be used to help date the material culture. For example, the presence of certain alloys can help us date an object to after a particular point of time when that alloy came into use.
I’m also excited to be helping Anna with her attempts to extract DNA from dental calculus found on some of the remains. Dental calculus is hardened tartar that forms on our teeth, which is why it’s important to brush and floss regularly. The teeth are gently dry brushed and examined for any presence of calculus. Dental calculus contains saliva and epithelial cells, which are biomarkers that can provide a wealth of information including DNA and possibly identify any pathologies the individual suffered from in their lifetime. Since calculus can be scraped off without damaging the rest of the skeleton, this is considered a nondestructive method of obtaining DNA samples from the skeletons. The non-invasive nature of this practice is important since these bodies will ultimately go back to Mt. Moriah Cemetery and we want to keep them in the best condition we can.
We still have a long ways to go — the bone and material culture washing stage of the project began in July and at the time of writing this post, we have only cleaned about 30 skeletons! Although I still won’t be at the Mutter in August 2020, I’ll definitely keep up with developments of this project and you can too at www.archstbones.org/.
Written by Sabrina Kwak ’19
Edited by MacK Somers ’20