Philadelphia dig uncovers timbers from before William Penn

Posted: July 29, 2012

A two-week archaeological probe of what was the city's 17th- and 18th-century riverfront uncovered great rounded timbers laid side by side, most likely evidence of the James West shipyard, built before the arrival of William Penn.

The exploratory dig, conducted at the behest of the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., hit wooden structures this week, just days before the scheduled conclusion of the two-week project Friday.

"We definitely have something here," said Tim Mancl, project field director for John Milner Associates, an archaeological and preservation planning firm.

"It's very early and it's intact," he continued. "It's worth looking further."

Mancl was standing over a seven-foot-deep, 25-foot-long trench cut through an old Hertz parking lot on Columbus Boulevard near Vine Street. When Penn arrived in 1682, the West shipyard had already been bustling for six years. It remained a functioning waterfront operation until the early 19th century.

The Milner crew cut three trenches on the Hertz lot. One, at the north end toward Callowhill Street, yielded water and little else.

The trench furthest to the east exposed what Mancl called "massive stones" that reminded him of "pier construction."

Most of the focus of the dig was on the trench farthest to the west, in which timbers were exposed. Because of the color and the lay of the soil, Mancl said, the timbers were probably "cribbing," possibly laid to drain marshy soil at river's edge.

Karen Thomas, planner and project manager with the Delaware River Waterfront Corp., agreed that the excavation showed "something is there."

"It's too early to tell what it means for future development," she said.

Mancl and his team must still produce a report with recommendations about how to proceed. The DRWC undertook the excavation because the waterfront master plan foresees development at the site.

Best to know what kind of archaeological work might lie ahead sooner rather than later, Thomas said. If Mancl recommends further exploration, the DRWC will need to raise funds to carry it out, she added.

All involved, at least privately, expect the archaeological report will indeed call for more extensive study.

In addition to the large underground beams and stones, the Milner crew unearthed some ceramic artifacts that probably date to the 18th century or earlier.

Archaeologists did not, however, locate any structures that could be associated with the Penny Pot Tavern, a watering hole in the neighborhood.

Thomas said there were preliminary discussions about presenting the findings at some kind of public meeting in the fall. No details have been worked out, however.

On Friday, as he was wrapping up work, taking some final measurements of the excavation, Mancl said what had been uncovered "is a very small taste" of what could be under the Hertz lot.

"We are excited we were able to show the early use of the land is still intact," he said.

Contact Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594,, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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