The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia

By John L. Cotter; Daniel G. Roberts et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction

He who calls what has vanished back into being, enjoys a bliss like that of creating.

—Barthold Niebuhr

In the bicentennial year of the signing of the Constitution of the United States of America, the 1987 telephone directory for the City of Philadelphia listed in its front matter no fewer than forty-six "fabulous firsts" that transpired within the city. One pioneering "first" that the directory somehow managed to overlook was that Philadelphia was the first major city in the nation to be the focus of comprehensive archaeological attention.

Archaeological studies of Philadelphia's historic sites began almost forty years ago at a time when the specialty of historical archaeology was in its infancy. An offspring of the branch of archaeology that studies prehistoric cultures, the new subdiscipline, like the old, retrieves and analyzes the physical evidence of the past. The goal of both specialties is an understanding of past cultures; the difference between them is that while the archaeology of prehistoric sites focuses on cultures that left no written records, the archaeology of historic sites deals with literate cultures that left at least some, and in many cases ample, written documentation of their lifeways.

Although gentleman scholars of the Victorian era devoted considerable effort to investigation of prehistoric sites, investigation of historic sites was not at that time a particularly popular pursuit. It was, however, not unknown. One of the earliest investigations of a historic site took place in 1856 in the small town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, where James Hall, using surprisingly careful methods, excavated the house site of his famed ancestor, Myles Standish (Deetz 1971:209). A few other investigations of historic sites occurred later in the nineteenth century, but it was not until 1934, when Jamestown in the rural reaches of Virginia became the focus of study, that historical archaeology began emerging as a distinct subdiscipline.

After World War II, London, its streets bombed and its historic sites agape, provided a prime urban laboratory for the practice of the new subdiscipline. Shortly thereafter, in the 1950s, archaeological studies in Philadelphia began at Independence National Historical Park, and they have been pursued with vigor ever since, making Philadelphia not just the first large urban area in the nation to be archaeologically investigated, but also the most thoroughly investigated one in North America (Cotter and Orr 1975).

Historical archaeology throughout the United States received a good deal of impetus in the 1960s, when the federal government enacted two laws, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, that provided for the protection of historic sites. The 1966 act created the National Register of Historic Places to designate "districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, and culture." The act also provided for the granting of funds to states "for the purpose of preparing comprehensive statewide historic surveys and plans ... for the preservation, acquisition, and development of such properties." With its numerous historic landmarks, Philadelphia was a prime beneficiary of this legislation.

Among the nearly 150 sites that make up the subject matter of this book are some of the best-known historic public buildings in America, as well as the homes of some of the country's most historic figures. Equally as important to the archaeological record, however, are the historically anonymous places also described in the chapters that follow: the domestic and commercial sites where people who left no imprint on the written record lived and worked. As shown in

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