'Secret' lab is secret no more
Back in March of 2017 when coffins were being excavated from the First Baptist Church’s cemetery on 218 Arch Street, we had a problem: where to put the coffins. At the time, the property developer took them from the site and stored them in shipping containers. But this was not a long-term solution. Neither could we internally excavate the remains in that sort of facility. After a few false starts, a solution emerged: Rutgers-Camden would provide funding for an off-campus warehouse from June until December 2017. During that time, we would run a summer program to excavate the coffins and incorporate the analysis of the remains into our classes as much as possible.
The next task was to find the right place at the right price. It needed at least 16,000 square feet of floor space to accommodate all the coffins. It needed climate control. It needed to be equidistant between Rutgers-Camden and TCNJ. It needed plenty of free parking and it needed a bathroom on site. Between April and May several warehouse-like sites were visited thanks to the super-helpful Rutgers real estate agents. Eventually we found just the right place….The Waggin’ Tails.
The Waggin’ Tails (henceforth WT) was a former dog grooming business in Burlington, NJ. It was perfectly situated near I-295, the NJ Turnpike, and the Florence Riverline train station. It had two areas – one that was just a plain garage-like space, perfect for loading in and storing coffins; the other space was tiled and made a great working-area. On June 29, 2017, we moved all the coffins in and began the TCNJ-led summer excavation class. Shortly after, additional burials were discovered and excavated from the site so just as we were depleting our supply of coffins from March, new coffins began to arrive daily. George Leader and I visited the Arch Street site virtually every day from July until the end of September to pick up whatever was unearthed that day and transport it to the WT. I believe we wore a path to and from that place.
Coffin excavation lasted all summer and into the fall of 2017. Still the WT was the perfect location to bring students, host visitors and reporters…”just look for the building with the dogs,” I would tell people. As the coffins were excavated, the focus of the work at the WT became cleaning the remains, the next step in the lengthy process before analysis can begin. Again the WT was the perfect place where we could set up drying racks, wash indoors or outside when the weather was nice.
Rutgers kindly extended the funding until May 2018, but at last the time had come to move out of the space. On May 12, 2018, we rented a U-Haul truck, packed up the boxes of remains, and transported them to TCNJ where the rest of the washing, photography, measuring, cataloging, and analysis will take place under the supervision of Dr. Jared Beatrice. The WT has been good to us this past year and leaving is bitter-sweat, the end of this chapter of the project.
Why was the location under wraps this whole time? The building had no robust security or cameras and since days would past with no one around, we didn’t want there to be the potential for a break-in or nosey neighbors. I was there the other day to take the last of the soil away from our excavation and met the new renters. It looks like the building will be a dog grooming business once again. I hope, if you have a dog, that you will take it there!