The Colonial-era houses along Elfreth's Alley, the nation's oldest residential street, have well-researched histories that document the names of nearly every homeowner over the past three centuries, as well as their occupations.
What's less well-known are the backgrounds of the impoverished immigrants who lived in tenements behind those brick rowhouses in Philadelphia. Discovering their stories has become the mission of archaeologist Deirdre Kelleher, who is excavating two courtyards on the passageway.
And she has invited the public to help.
“I'm studying the general populace,” said Kelleher, a 28-year-old doctoral student at Temple University. “I thought it was important to get the community involved.”
Every year, tens of thousands of tourists trod the cobblestones and narrow sidewalks of Elfreth's Alley to admire the architecture of its quaint homes. A mix of renters and owners still live in the 32 rowhouses, which were built between 1728 and 1836.
Kelleher is focusing on two homes, built in 1755 by Jeremiah Elfreth, that now comprise the Elfreth's Alley Museum. She's spent the past three summers overseeing digs in their courtyards, where nearly hidden, three-story structures called trinities once stood.
Philadelphia's 19th-century immigrants have been understudied archaeologically partly because they didn't live in discrete ethnic enclaves, Kelleher said. Whereas New York and Boston saw immigrant housing concentrated in certain neighborhoods, such populations were dispersed throughout Philadelphia, she said.
And while archival records can offer glimpses into the lives of these newcomers, Kelleher said there is little firsthand information.
“They're not the ones writing their histories,” said Kelleher, herself the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. “You don't have their own voice in the written record as much, which is where archaeology comes in.”
So far, about 45 people have helped with the excavation, including current alley residents, a descendant of a former resident, and the simply curious. Archaeology experts say involving the public is accepted practice as long as they are overseen by professionals.
Gail Lovett, a picture framer from nearby Bryn Mawr, happened upon Kelleher's invitation to dig while surfing the Web. Soon enough, she and her daughter Emily, a history major at Washington College in Maryland, were toiling in the summer heat to uncover items like buttons, pipe stems and marbles. They were even able to date an ink bottle they found through its unique shape.
“You don't know what you're going to find,” Gail Lovett said. “It's like a puzzle, it's like a mystery.”
After digging each summer, volunteers again join Kelleher during the winter at Temple University, just a couple of miles away, to clean and analyze items unearthed at the alley. Kelleher plans one more summer of field work and hopes to finish her dissertation a couple of years after that.
Patrick Wittwer, operations manager for the Elfreth's Alley Museum, said the project has verified previous research and uncovered new material.
For example, records had indicated two sisters-in-law worked as dressmakers in one of the homes. Kelleher confirmed that by finding straight pins and sewing needles in the ground, Wittwer said.
He hopes the work will intrigue both residents and visitors to the museum, which saw about 45,000 tourists pass through last year. Many thousands more walked the street without stopping in.
“They're kind of missing out on the full story,” Wittwer said. “To them, it's just some cute old houses.”