Volunteer workers are now racing to examine the dozens of bodies they've found before it's too late.
Construction workers have discovered 77 colonial-era human remains in varying states of decomposition underneath a Philadelphia parking lot.
The area is the former graveyard of Philadelphia’s First Baptist Church, according to CNN. The graveyard was operational from 1707 to 1859, which is when the bodies were supposed to have been moved across the city to the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Now, researchers are working fast to examine these historic remains.
“These are our ancestors. This is our history,” Anna Dhody, the forensic anthropologist from the Mütter Institute at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, told Philly.com. “We can learn so much from these bones — about the yellow fever epidemic in 1793, the cholera epidemic of 1849.”
The property’s developer, PMC Properties, has agreed to rebury the bodies in a different graveyard. PMC Executive Vice President Jonathan Stavin told Philly.com that, “We’re trying to be respectful of what is found there, bearing in mind that this is an active construction site.”
PMC is giving a team of volunteer archaeologists and anthropologists a chance to examine the bodies.
“This is a positive thing for any possible future projects because we’re training them to look for future archeological sites,” said Dhody, who is leading the team. “Philadelphia is a historical city. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and it won’t be the last. Construction workers are our first line of eyes. Getting them involved and interested is key to preserving our history.”
Of the 77 human remains, the ones buried in the section with clay-like soil are excellently preserved, while the coffins in the more acidic soil have effectively fallen apart, according to Philly.com. This disparity has made exhuming the corpses challenging work, as some are much more sensitive than others.
“We’d love to do an archaeological excavation, but we have to be realistic,” Kimberlee Moran, a forensics expert at Rutger University-Camden, told the Philly Voice. “We could easily be here for months, but we’re doing the best we can.”
Once the volunteer archaeology team has finished their work, the bodies will be reburied in the Mount Moriah Cemetery, as originally intended more than 150 years ago.