TCNJ Magazine Fall 2019

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34 The College of New Jersey Magazine O n a freezing Monday morning in March 2017, George Leader read the newspaper article that turned his life upside down. The story was about a race to recover coffins discovered beneath the ground in a historic Philadelphia neighborhood where luxury condos were about to rise. Leader, an archaeologist and visiting professor of anthropology at TCNJ, grew more worried with each paragraph. The developer agreed to halt construction at 218 Arch Street for just two weeks, and the clock was already ticking. Leader realized that volunteers were — at that very moment — working frantically to get the coffins up before the backhoes returned. They had two days left, and a blizzard was on the way. Ignoring the cold, he hopped on his bicycle and rode from his downtown Philadelphia home to the site, planning to offer to call fellow archaeologists to help lobby the developer for an extension. Instead, Leader found himself back at the dig the next day in his field clothes, helping to map and unearth coffins as the snow began to fall. Remains from 78 people were found during that two-week excavation. That was just the start. Over the next few months, coffins continued to emerge, and construction at the site — which had most recently been a parking lot — stopped indefinitely. By the end of 2017, the remains of nearly 500 people were recovered from what was once the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia's Colonial-era cemetery, dating to about 1707. Public records had indicated the cemetery had been relocated in 1860, but the discovery of bones told a different story. Now, Leader's days revolve around studying thousands of artifacts found with the remains as he works to uncover the stories and history surrounding those lives. Joining him from TCNJ is Jared Beatrice, a professor of anthropology who is overseeing the analysis of the skeletal remains. For both Leader and Beatrice — and the TCNJ students working alongside them — it is an extraordinary opportunity. "Whenever you talk about the birth of this nation, you talk about Philadelphia, and now here we have people who lived through the most important parts," Leader says. "We have this huge responsibility to essentially write part of history and provide data on the life and death and health of that population that we never had before." Richard Veit, a co-author of The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers, calls Arch Street "an incredible discovery." Coffin hardware inscribed with "Morior in Spe" translates to "To die in hope."

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