Posted December 20, 2012

Public archeology project embraces Philly's immigrant past

Temple Ph.D. candidate and volunteers uncover 19th century artifacts in Philadelphia's historic Elfreth's Alley

Often archaeologists prefer to keep the public as far away from their sites as possible — fears of looting or damage to important artifacts and architectural features compel them to conduct much of their work in secured areas.

But not Temple doctoral student Deirdre Kelleher.

In fact, one of the primary goals of Kelleher's current archeology project is engaging the public in the process of digging up old treasures.

Indeed, her dig at national historic site Elfreth's Alley — popularly known as “our nation’s oldest continuously occupied residential street" — has been undertaken within full view of both block residents and visitors to the historic site's museum, and it is even being conducted with the help of volunteers.

"I see the history of Elfreth's Alley as the history of everyday man: It is everyone's history,” said Kelleher. “By offering volunteers the opportunity to become actively involved in the excavation, they are essentially reclaiming their history and taking part in the past."

Her work is part a movement known as "public archeology." According to Kelleher, it's an idea that's gaining momentum, but having volunteers trained and actually participating in an excavation as she does at Elfreth's Alley is still outside the norm — as is having it all take place at an active museum.

"At our site, museum visitors are always passing by as we perform the excavation. Sometimes they return to see how we are doing or to volunteer. It's a way for them to really start to embrace their history," she said.

Kelleher's research is also unique for another reason. It's among the first archeology projects in Philadelphia specifically intended to understand the experience of 19th Century immigrants.

Located in Old City, Philadelphia, Elfreth's Alley was created in 1702-04 as a cart way between Second Street and the Riverfront, connecting the thoroughfare to the smiths and mills along the Delaware River.

Kelleher has been excavating areas behind two of the alley's 18th century houses where extensions to the houses in the form tenements had been built through the 19th century. Although those structures no longer exist, Kelleher's findings provide clues about the day-to-day lives of the working class Irish and German immigrants who resided in them.

Found objects include pipe stems, buttons, bottles, straight pins, ceramics, animal bones, lice combs, stove ball and claw feet, and architectural features, etc. From these artifacts Kelleher is trying to determine to what extent the residents participated in the temperance/abstinence movements of their day and what access they had to economic mobility.

She and her volunteers worked on the dig all summer, sometimes in 100 degree temperatures. But that was the easy part. Now they meet biweekly in Temple’s Anthropology Lab to dust off and process the found items. The group will return to Elfreth's Alley next summer to continue digging.

Volunteer Wendy Miervaldis of Basking Ridge, N.J., plans to be there. Miervaldis learned about the dig at a meeting for the Archeology Society of New Jersey and has been working with Kelleher since last June. She has found that participating on the dig accentuates her understanding of the past.

"As you are down on your hands and knees, moving dirt slowly, carefully and things start to pop up, you really do feel connected to the past," said  Miervaldis. "You can almost imagine when a tea cup was broken or was tossed out. It's a mystery and you're in the middle of it. It's better than a book."

Kelleher got started at the location in 2009 when a homeowner on the street contacted Temple's Department of Anthropology to see if someone would be interested in exploring an ash chute he had discovered beneath the remnants of fireplace in his living room. Having always been fascinated by Elfreth's Alley, Kelleher jumped at the opportunity and worked there for three days under the supervision of her advisor Professor David Orr.

"Archeologists typically don't conduct their digs in homes where people are currently living. But that added an interesting dimension to the work: I was researching how people lived centuries ago on a site where people still were living," she said. Through that experience, Kelleher realized that working both at Elfreth's Alley and with the public was something she wanted to continue.

"Deirdre's work has been such a great way for us to build on the story we tell here," said Patrick Wittwer, Museum Operations Manager at the Elfreth's Alley Association.

"So many of Philadelphia's historic sites focus on the colonial times. But it's important not to overlook the 19th century and the working class in Philadelphia. Being able to look into the tenements that we had behind the alley, but are no longer there, gives us a window into that life," Wittwer said.

When her project is complete, Kelleher's findings will ultimately be displayed in an exhibit at the Elfreth's Alley Museum. In the meantime, her experiences on her Elfreth's Alley dig are chronicled for the public in the blog, "Archeology on the Alley."