In July 2013, the URS Corporation (URS) conducted a Phase IB archaeological investigation of the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church Burying Ground (1810–circa 1864), located in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. This investigation was performed on behalf of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) and in advance of planned renovations to the City of Philadelphia’s Weccacoe Playground property (circa 1906–present). Proposed improvements to the playground have the potential to impact portions of Mother Bethel’s cemetery, which remains preserved below the southwest corner of the larger property. This investigation was conducted in order to collect critical information that would allow playground renovations to move forward in a manner that would not impact historic burials, and that will ensure the long-term preservation of this significant African American burying ground.
Phase IB testing involved the excavation of four backhoe trenches within and along the boundaries of the cemetery. Trench excavations only extended to the point below surface at which archaeological evidence associated with the cemetery was encountered. In most instances, the burial-related evidence identified consisted of well-preserved grave shaft features; however, in a handful of cases, trench excavation was halted when decayed, intact coffin wood was exposed. At no point during this investigation were intact human skeletal remains exposed, uncovered, or disturbed.
Trench excavations succeeded in producing a significant amount of information related to the Mother Bethel Burying Ground. In particular, testing was able to determine that soils containing evidence of intact burial features are present immediately below the playground asphalt and gravel sub-base. While the depth below surface at which burial evidence was identified did vary somewhat across the cemetery, the shallowest depth at which grave shafts appeared was approximately 1.8 feet below the present surface. Evidence of intact burial remains was identified at depths of between 2.5 and 3 feet below the surface.
Additional findings from this investigation included:
- the identification of the intact north and east walls bounding the cemetery;
- no indication that burials extend beyond the known limits of the cemetery and its perimeter walls;
- evidence that the cemetery grounds were filled in and leveled—most likely in the midnineteenth century, toward the end of its period of active use; the determination that intact burials are contained within these later fill soils;
- historical documentation suggesting that the cemetery could contain a significantly greater number of burials than originally thought; and evidence suggesting that some unknown number of burials have been disturbed during prior construction and renovation activities within the playground
The above is from the URS report titled Phase IB Archaeological Investigations of the Mother Bethel Burying Ground, 1810 – Circa 1864 ER No. 2013-1516-101-A. To view the report see 10/28/14 posting.
To view a video of lead archeologist, Doug Mooney discussing his team’s findings click on – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxj-Nn2Xs-s&feature=youtu.be