At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11, Rutgers University-Camden researchers will host a virtual public forum to learn more about what they call the Arch Street Project.

The researchers emphasize that they are not conducting any research on this project without the express permission of the church.

The people whose bones were discovered at the First Baptist Church cemetery site (and will be reinterred in September 2023 at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania) represent a cross section of Philadelphia society at the time. This is unusual for cemeteries of the time, said historian Nicholas Bonneau. He is part of the research group that studies burial sites and teaches history of science and public health at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County.

He explained that until the end of the 19th century, many burials in cemeteries were of people born into a particular congregation, faith or community. However, since Baptists decide to join the faith rather than be born into it, those buried at the First Baptist Church cemetery included people who may have come from different congregations or backgrounds. Bonneau said that in fact, of the 3,000 people buried at Arch Street Cemetery, most were not paying members of the First Baptist Congregation.

“So we get from 1709 until the dawn of the Civil War, a very good sample of Philadelphia life and better than any other cemetery could have given us,” Bonneau said. “It’s been a fantastic way to get a glimpse of life in Philadelphia during these important times of transition.”

Dental calculus: study of the microbiomes of the 18th century

Bonneau studied the historical records of the church itself and other records and found that those buried at the cemetery include masons, watchmakers, sailors, politicians from other states who came to Congress from Philadelphia and died here, and at least one artist whose works are on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He is working with the group’s scientists to identify the people, so that they can be grouped into family groups when they are reinterred next September.

One such scientist is Anna Dhody, a physical anthropologist and director of the Mütter Research Institute at the Mütter Museum. She said she and her research collaborators are excited about the genetic data that can be collected from people who have been buried at the site. She studies dental tartar, which is what stays on your teeth and stays hard without regular dental cleaning.

“It’s a wealth of incredible information and it basically contains… what we now call your microbiome,” she said. The microbiome refers to all the bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live with and inside humans.

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