Archaeologists are digging to the bottom of Philadelphia’s Black Bottom

There is a perfect hole, exactly one square meter, dug on the edge of a gravel parking lot behind the Community Education Center building on Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village.

Archaeologists hope that hole will be a portal to the Black Bottom, the neighborhood that used to be here before it was bulldozed in the 1960s.

A hole one meter square marks the beginning of an archaeological investigation of the Black Bottom, an African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, which was bulldozed in the 1960s. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tuesday, the first day of a two-week dig, did not reveal much: Archaeologist Doug Smit sorted through a brown paper bag with things like a shard of brown glass that might have been a medicine bottle, a wire nail likely from mid-century, and a dress pin.

“Like this thing,” said Smit, holding up a squat cylindrical-shaped object that might be made of enamel but he wasn’t sure. “We don’t know what it is. So, you know, we’ll find out.”

Archaeologists (clockwise from lower left) Doug, Smit, Megan Kassabaum, and Sarah Linn, excavate a meter-square hole behind the Community Education Center on Lancaster Avenue, looking for remnants of an African American neighborhood known as Black Bottom, which was bulldozed in the 1960s. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Smit, a teaching assistant professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is part of Heritage West, a community archaeological project to discover the recent past of this West Philly neighborhood.

He and his colleagues Megan Kassabaum and Sarah Linn, both archaeologists at the University of Pennsylvania, are carefully digging a hole in the shadow of the towers of Drexel University and Penn, campuses for which the Black Bottom was sacrificed by eminent domain in the 1960s.

They chose this spot based on ground penetrating radar tests, which show a likelihood of a wall or foundation underground. These preliminary digs, limited to one square meter, are studies in preparation for a more significant excavation project to begin in September.

“We know from historic maps that there were a series of homes that once stood in this parking lot, three brick row homes along one side and two sets of wooden twins,” said Kassabaum, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Archaeologist Megan Kassabaum shows how ground penetrating radar revealed the most promising places to dig. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“We’re hoping to find the remains of those structures,” she said. “But more importantly, the remains that will tell us about the lives of the people who lived in those structures from the time they were built until the time they were abandoned.”

  • August 3, 2023
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