We tend to associate the word “archaeology” with remote locations. Rebecca Yamin digs into Philadelphia.
We tend to associate the word “archaeology” with remote locations such as Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East, where artifacts are buried under many centuries of ground cover and excavated by arcane academics who might uncover ancient treasures that only a minuscule number of scholars could ever care about.
But longtime West Mt. Airy resident Rebecca Yamin is an “urban archaeologist” and author who gets just as excited about digging into Philadelphia sites as Eagles fans do when the Birds beat the Dallas Cowboys.
Yamin's new book, “Digging in the City of Brotherly Love; Stories from Philadelphia Archaeology, second edition,” released Sept. 8 by Temple University Press, adds new information to her 2008 book, which had revealed, among other things, that “George Washington kept slaves on the very site where the Liberty Bell would be displayed.” This discovery was particularly shocking and contradictory since the abolitionist movement “used the Liberty Bell as a symbol of freedom deserved by all.”
The excavation of George Washington's house near Independence Hall from March through July of 2007 “is a great example of how complicated and surprising urban archaeology can be,” according to Yamin. This project obviously fascinated the general public since more than 300,000 people visited the site during those five months in 2007. The reception room where Washington received dignitaries was discovered.
This discovery, “elegantly uncovered by the archaeological team, represents two worlds: the world of the elite — Washington and his family — and the world of the enslaved Africans who were also part of his household. Just feet apart, the tangible evidence of the kitchen where the slaves worked and the reception room where Washington held court attests to the reality of the terrible contradiction that plagued the early years of the republic, and thousands of people came to watch the process of uncovering it.”
Yamin's new information showcases several other major discoveries from recent finds including unmarked early 18th-century burial grounds, one of which was associated with the first African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, in the oldest part of the city; a 19th-century working class neighborhood built along the path of what is now Route I-95 and was once home to Native American life; and the remains of two taverns found on the site of the current Museum of the American Revolution.
According to James Symonds, professor of historical archaeology at the University of Amsterdam, “'Digging in the City of Brotherly Love' is an outstanding book, meticulously researched and beautifully crafted. Rebecca Yamin is among the very best historical archaeologists writing today.”
Yamin, who has also done extensive work in New York and New Jersey including the Five Points site in Lower Manhattan, earned a bachelor’s degree. from the University of Pennsylvania and master’s and doctorate degrees from New York University. She has authored several other books on urban archaeology, including “Archaeology at the Site of the Museum of the American Revolution,” which won the 2022 James Deetz Book Prize awarded by the Society for Historical Archaeology.
“My new book is for graduate students but also for the general public,” Yamin told us last week. “People are naturally interested in this subject. When we do a dig, people hang over the fence because they are so curious to see what we will find. I will admit that some writings on this subject are unreadable, so I try very hard to appeal to ordinary readers.
“I think this subject is so interesting, so much fun. It is a privilege to do it. We are not academics, although I have taught at Penn, Rutgers and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities. We work under contract. We normally only have a certain amount of time and money given to us, but sometimes we will go beyond the confines of the contract and not be paid for it. Because we are so involved in the project, we just have to keep working.”
Yamin grew up in Cazenovia, a small town in the Finger Lakes region of upper New York State. She says the local school system assiduously avoided teaching about Frederick Douglass and the major Fugitive Slave Law Convention held there in August of 1850, the most significant historical event ever to take place in the small, conservative town.
“But I was still lucky to grow up there,” Yamin said. “It is a beautiful region. I'm a country girl. I like the dirt, so I love the Wissahickon and Weavers Way. West Mt. Airy is amazing. Coming from a town of a few thousand people, I thought I had better learn about the real world, so I came to Philadelphia in 1960 to go to Penn. There were only six women in my entire freshman class. I loved walking around the city when I was at Penn.”
Yamin, who has been living in Mt. Airy for 20 years, was also a modern dancer who took classes in New York but gave it up to pursue a career in urban archaeology. “It took me 25 years to get my Ph.D,” she said. “You can't be an archeologist if you have to be sure about things. History is like putting a puzzle together. The more you learn, the more you may have to alter the narrative.”
For more information about “Digging in the City of Brotherly Love,” visit tupress.temple.edu or amazon.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the historic figure associated with the Fugitive Slave Law Convention. It was Frederick Douglass, not Stephen Douglas.