Excavating history at Fishtown dig site

Finds from an on­go­ing I-95 ar­che­olo­gic­al dig in­clude whim­sic­al trinkets and house­hold items. It’s a snap­shot of long-ago Philly, and pieces will be on dis­play at the In­de­pend­ence Sea­port Mu­seum through Feb. 3.

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.

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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