Garbage In, History Out in Philadelphia Excavation

<i> from Associated Press</i>

A short walk from the spot where Ben Franklin’s house once stood, archeologists have stumbled upon relics that may offer a glimpse into the lives of 18th- and 19th-Century Philadelphians who didn’t make the history books.

In July, a crew of archeologists started digging for artifacts on a piece of land where construction of a $50-million federal prison is to get under way this winter.

After a while, serendipity: toilets, cisterns, back rooms and gutters from the 18th Century, as well as foundations and relics from the 19th Century.


“We know a lot about the famous people who lived in Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th Century,” said Joe Dent, associate professor of archeology at American University and senior archeologist on the project. “This is everybody else.”

With backhoes, shovels and brushes, the archeologists are working just blocks from Independence Hall and other sites where the likes of Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton once lived.

The digging, which federal law requires before prison construction can start, is expected to last several more weeks.

“When you find something that dates to Revolutionary America, it’s a big deal,” said Mark Shaffer, a state historic preservationist. Shaffer noted that while written records shed light on the lives of powerful and well-known people, “The only way to find out about [ordinary people’s lives] is to look at their garbage.”

On the property of Civil War photographer Frederick Gutekunst, the crew discovered a toilet filled with green sludge, pottery bits, oxen hoofs, cattle horns and molds for sugar.

Dent believes that a butcher may have worked there, a sugar-processing plant may have operated on the site and one resident had enough money to order china.