Published: May 7, 2019
In the summer of 2014, archaeologist Rebecca Yamin found herself digging in the heart of Philadelphia at the future site of the Museum of the American Revolution. The study that came afterwards, enumerated in her 2018 book Archaeology At The Site Of The Museum Of The American Revolution: A Tale of Two Taverns and the Growth of Philadelphia, provided for a cross-century analysis of the city’s earliest inhabitants in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. From taverns and brothels to buttons and bowls, Yamin spoke with Antiques and the Arts Weekly about what she found beneath the streets of the City of Brotherly Love.
What was the impetus for adding an archaeological survey to the building process of the Museum of American Revolution? Is it a common practice?
Archaeology was required on the Museum of the American Revolution site because the land originally belonged to the National Park Service and a condition of the transfer to the museum was that an archaeological study be conducted. The museum site was located at the corner of Third and Chestnut Streets – the heart of the oldest part of the city – which made it sensitive for archaeological remains.
How many historic lots were found within the footprint of the museum’s property?
Although the most recent structure on the site was built in the 1970s, the land was first developed at the end of the Seventeenth Century and by the Eighteenth Century included 23 separate lots. From tax records we knew that the residents were mainly artisans and shopkeepers, including watchmakers, tailors, grocers, curriers and printers, along with at least one merchant, a tavern keeper and a widow. We hoped to find artifacts relating to the residents who likely lived upstairs from their shops.
What are you looking for within each lot? What yields the best artifacts?
As in most urban situations, we did not expect to find historic ground surfaces, that is, backyards, but we did think that at least the bottoms of privies, cisterns and wells might be present. In cities, those “features” are usually lined with stone or brick and even if their tops have been lopped off by the basements of buildings that covered the old yards in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, the bottom portions often survive and are filled with trash. Before cities had organized garbage collection, people had to put their trash anyplace they could.
Let’s walk through some of the artifacts and what you learned about their owners, starting with the Chestnut Street tavern.
We found remains relating to two taverns, one dating to the 1760s on Chestnut Street, which ran directly down to the port on the Delaware River. The families living on the lot – one headed by a tanner and the other by a keeper of a weights and measures shop – did not run a tavern, but it appears that the tavern keeper across the street used their privy to discard unwanted dishes and glassware when the tavern was renovated. There were many ceramic cups used for an alcoholic drink called posset (curdled milk mixed with rum or some other spirit), tankards in various regulation sizes, colorfully decorated redware dishes and big beautiful, locally made redware chargers.
And the unlicensed tavern?
There was also an unlicensed tavern on an alley running parallel to Chestnut Street. Mary Humphreys was charged with running an illegal tavern on the lot in 1783 and many artifacts seem to have been thrown in the privy at that time. They included a punch bowl that may be the earliest piece of true porcelain made in America and another punch bowl with the words, “Success to the Tryphena” written on its interior. The Tryphena was a ship that sailed between Philadelphia and Liverpool and in 1766 carried a message from the merchants and traders of Philadelphia to the merchants and manufacturers of Great Britain asking them to stop the Stamp Act. Needless to say, this was a fantastic artifact to find on the site of a future museum dedicated to the American Revolution.
And the Philadelphia Inquirer?
Pieces of printer’s type were found in a privy associated with an early office of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the daily newspaper that has been in business since before the Civil War. A crucible was also recovered that was probably used for the founding (casting) of the type.
And you found remnants from a button making shop?
The most recent artifacts recovered related to a button factory that operated on the site from the early Twentieth Century up to the Second World War. The factory occupied the old Jayne Building that had been constructed in the middle of the Nineteenth Century by a patent medicine manufacturer named Dr David Jayne. Besides button debris, we uncovered the massive granite foundations of the building, which was the tallest building in Philadelphia when it was built and was thought to be a kind of proto-skyscraper. The button debris consisted of thousands of pieces of shell with the shapes of buttons cut out of them.
How is the museum using the fruits of your research going forward?
The Tryphena punch bowl is on exhibit in the now-complete Museum of the American Revolution (a replica is also available in the shop). Many of the other artifacts are being used in the museum’s educational programs. We are very happy that the museum is curating much of the collection as archaeological collections are often stored away and not easily available for study or interpretation.
Did you enjoy this study? What are your key takeaways from it?
This project was unusual in that we found artifacts spanning the entire historic occupation of the site from the turn of the Eighteenth Century up to the middle of the Twentieth Century. It seems particularly appropriate to find such a complete record of Philadelphia’s past on the site of a history museum.
(Editor’s note: Rebecca Yamin’s book, Archaeology at the Site of the Museum of the American Revolution: A Tale of Two Taverns and the Growth of Philadelphia, can be purchased online at https://shop.amrevmuseum.org/archaeology-at-the-site-of-the-museum-of-the-american-revolution-a-tale-of-two-taverns-and-the-growth-of-philadelphia.html).
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