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Excavating history at Fishtown dig site

One man’s trash, it’s often been said, is another man’s treasure.

But according to a team of archaeologists digging along the Delaware River, one man’s trash isn’t treasure, exactly, but a snapshot of the life of Philadelphians from two centuries ago.

“We basically look at trash, at what people threw away, and try to piece together what their lives were like,” said Doug Mooney, a senior archaeologist for URS Corp., which is overseeing an archaeological dig under I-95.

The excavation is part of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s preparations for the proposed improvements of a three-mile stretch of I-95, from Race Street to Allegheny Avenue. The state is required by the National Historic Preservation Act look for any historic artifacts before construction begins, and that’s where URS, an engineering company with a large artifacts department, came in.

“We clear these areas so construction folks can come in and just do their work without worrying,” Mooney explained.

Mooney and his team have, in the past year, discovered artifacts of Native Americans of the Delaware Tribe that have been carbon-dated to between 2,100 and 2,500 B.C., as well as artifacts from the 17th century, and historical remnants of life in Industrial Revolution-era Philadelphia.

“Twenty years ago, archaeologists would have thought Philadelphia’s too heavily developed to have Native American artifacts,” he said. “But there are always little pockets that survive.”

Other finds from the dig include a pair of rivet spectacles, believed to be the oldest in the United States, a bone whistle, a penny from 1801, gunflints and arrowheads.

Last week, Star visited a site at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Richmond Street, where the archaeologists are digging in what Mooney called, “the back yard of the block that used to be here.”

About 20 archaeologists have been digging in different subterranean privies — outhouses — from early 19th century homes, and have shoveled and sifted dirt in the search for artifacts.

It’s not exactly glamorous, but the subterranean holes in these areas — usually made with wooden barrels that have long disintegrated, or with brick that still exists in the dirt — are valuable resources of historical information.

“You’re not digging ‘poo,’ per se. It’s sterilized within five years,” explained Dan Eichinger, a field supervisor.

Citizens were required to keep privies and outhouses clean by the health department in those days. When they were no longer in use, citizens usually filled these holes up, often using household trash to aid in the process.

In some holes, almost completely intact items were visible through the dirt, including a teakettle and a dinner plate.

Household trash was the main find in this area. But as many residents were likely employees of the Dyottvile Glass Works factory, which formerly stood near this area, there are also “end-of-the-day whimsies,” as Mooney called them — little glass blown objects made by workers for their own amusement and pleasure.

“When somebody finds something fun, they’ll pass it around, and show it to everybody,” Mooney said.

The most popular pieces were “witch balls,” colored globes of glass, which Philadelphians would commonly hang by a window as a charm to ward off evil spirits.

Many of the artifacts discovered by this dig are on display in a new exhibit at the Independence Seaport Museum, “Digging the City: Archaeological Discoveries from the Philadelphia Waterfront.”

Archaeologists working on the site are presenting two more free talks (Dec. 13, 6 to 8 p.m., and Jan. 17, 6 to 8 p.m.) at the museum to educate locals about the heritage hidden in the ground beneath their feet. But even as the exhibit is on display, excavation work continues, and may continue for multiple years.

Mooney said that he hopes his team’s efforts to reconstruct life from 2500 B.C. to 1900 A.D. will be recognized for the scope of what they have discovered. The current exhibit fills a hallway in the museum and will be open until Feb. 3.

But Mooney said they could fill an entire floor with the artifacts they discovered. Without a permanent home for this array of historical items, most of the artifacts will end up in storage at the state museum in Harrisburg, unlikely to be seen again, Mooney said.

“We want to keep folks as informed as possible,” Mooney said of the presentation series. “This is their history. They have a right to know what we’re digging up.”

Learn more about the archaeologists’ talks at the museum and the artifacts exhibit at www.phillyseaport.org.

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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