Most folks are aware that Philadelphia is a historic city.
Tourists flock to the City of Brotherly Love to see Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House and all the historic sites in the Old City neighborhood, every day.
But a recent one-night-only presentation, called Before and Below I-95: Archaeological and Historical Discoveries 2011, highlighted something that a lot of folks probably don’t know. Some of the oldest remnants of the area’s past aren’t in Center City, but actually are hidden under our feet along the shores of the Delaware River.
ldquo;Old City gets the attention, but in terms of archaeological preservation, this is of a magnitude larger than anything downtown,” said Doug Mooney, referring to areas under I-95 along the river.
Mooney is senior archaeologist for the URS Corp. The company has been contracted by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to handle the archaeological work being done in the areas where PennDOT will be tackling the ongoing I-95 Revive project.
Last week, Mooney, along with representatives from URS and the Central Delaware Advocacy Group, presented a collection of artifacts they have unearthed in the past year. The exhibit was presented on Nov. 15 at the Kensington High School for the Creative and Performing Arts on Front Street in Kensington.
It was the second artifact presentation organized by URS and the advocacy group since the start of the I-95 project. The array of items was discovered during excavations for both I-95 Revive and an interchange project at Girard Avenue.
In the high school gym, the display of things from the past encompassed dishes, glass bottles, delicate porcelain dolls, even toothbrushes — to note just a few.
“What we have here is less than one-tenth of one percent of what we’ve found,” said Mooney. “And we still have several years of excavating to go.”
For the presentation, Mooney selected items that Philadelphians would have used when the city was still known as the “Workshop of the World,” as well as items that Native American tribes may have left behind when they moved on from their settlements.
Mooney gave credit to PennDOT for allowing URS to find and study artifacts during excavation for the highway work.
Too often, especially in urban areas with a rich history like Philadelphia’s, development can destroy artifacts if precautions aren’t taken, he explained.
“They start and stop and nobody ever learns what was found or what happened there,” he said, referring to construction projects. “But in this community, this is the local history … their local history.”
During the exhibition at the school, Mooney chatted with residents about the history of the area, including the Aramingo canal — a 160-year-old manmade canal that once flowed under Aramingo Avenue — and some examples of early glassmaking from the Dyotteville plant, located near the former site of the Cramp Shipyard. The find included a pair of eyeglasses, perhaps ranking up there among the oldest spectacles ever found in America, Mooney said.
ldquo;The people who lived here, throughout all these time periods, have left their mark on the landscape,” he said.
The spectacles in question were found near the intersection of Shackamaxon and Wildey streets and are known as “rivet” spectacles — two lenses connected in the middle by a steel rivet, the archaeologist explained.
As a result of some investigation, Mooney said, the spectacles likely date to a period from about 1650 to 1700.
“I about fell out of my chair when I heard that the first time,” Mooney said with a laugh. “And we are finding boxes of this stuff every day. Our lab is overwhelmed with this kind of stuff.”
Last year, a similar presentation of artifacts attracted more than 300 people. Mooney thought last week’s session had a strong turnout as well.
A good deal of the people who stopped by for an up-close look at relics of the city’s past seemed rather impressed.
“I’m going to go dig in my basement when I get home,” said Lynn Shain, who lives on the 2300 block of Susquehanna St. “With new people moving into the neighborhood every day, I’m getting more and more interested in the history of my neighborhood.”
Donna DiFiore Sticher, of the 1700 block of Mascher St., said she learned a lot from the presentation. In fact, it gave her a deeper appreciation of her house and her family ties there, going back to 1808.
ldquo;We’ve lived here all our lives and it’s really interesting to see this area’s history,” she said. ••
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org