The 17th-century rivet spectacles found during reconstruction of a section of I-95 in Philadelphia may be the oldest eyeglasses ever found in the United States.
Maybe not quite King Tut’s treasures, but for archaeologists—and at least a couple of Drexel University-educated engineers—a fascinating mother lode all the same.
In fact, civil engineer Elaine Elbich ’88 considers the two circles, made of thin horn and attached at the bridge with a metal rivet, one of the most wondrous discoveries out of the more than one and a half million artifacts unearthed over the massive, multi-year project.
“To know someone was wearing these is really cool,” says PennDOT’s I-95 Design portfolio manager.
Since 2005, she has worked with archeologists from the state and the engineering firm AECOM to help coordinate the environmental requirements for the I-95 Girard Avenue interchange project. Elbich also works with James J. Anderson Construction Company, the firm charged with making the improvements. Turns out the chief engineer is fellow Drexel grad Bob Crawford ’85, ’87, also a civil engineer.
Elbich, 52, of Wayne, Pa., says she views her job as a giant jigsaw puzzle. “I’m the one who pulls all the pieces together,” a skill she says she has exhibited since her days organizing a team of mechanical, structural and civil engineering majors for senior design project.
Over the last dozen years, Elbich has become a history buff and archaeology advocate. “There’s not just the community we coordinate with, but a whole community buried underground.” she says. Elbich has helped coordinate exhibits of the finds and impromptu displays for the locals.
Working ahead of the construction company, archaeologists at nine sites in the neighborhoods of Northern Liberties, Kensington-Fishtown and Port Richmond have uncovered arrowheads, glass medicine bottles, porcelain dishes and figurines, and, of course, the spectacles.
The project, funded by PennDOT and the Federal Highway Administration, covers improvements along a three-mile stretch on I-95, between the Vine Street Expressway and Allegheny Avenue, that includes the Girard Avenue interchange, widening the overhead highway, installation of new utilities, and improvement of access to the waterfront, according to a website called Digging I95 (diggingi95.com), which chronicles the archaeological efforts.
“As a contractor, I’m always thinking, `Get the heck out of my way,’” says Crawford, 55, of Newtown, Pa. But, he concedes, the finds are “pretty amazing.” Among the ones that stood out are a comb and a Revolutionary era bayonet and ammunition.
One of the richer sites is the early 19th-century Dyottville Glass Works at the Girard Interchange. Artifacts uncovered include perfume bottles, water pitchers and glass canes. “It’s amazing for some of them to be whole,” Elbich says. The foundations of the glassworks also was unearthed. “The archaeologists were doing cartwheels.”
Elbich never expected her job to take this sharp turn. Usually, her focus is replacing bridges and building highways, getting permits and working with neighborhoods.
“Never did I think about historical structures underground,” she says. But then along came the I-95 project. Under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, any big infrastructure project is required to include archaeological exploration before earthmovers go in—a way to ensure preservation of America’s past.
This project of Crawford’s and Elbich’s is a perfect example of the importance of history. There is a wealth of history and knowledge under the roads, especially in Philadelphia. Over the last 10 years, the I-95 reconstruction has yielded artifacts spanning 6000 to 8000 years of history. That’s prehistoric through Native American, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and World War I. “To actually hold arrowheads, to hold something buried for 4,000 years, is life changing,” Elbich says. “You’re building new things, and you have something that old.”
Crawford has spent time watching the archaeologists at work. “They even found money around here,” he says of English coins. It brings the shows he watches on the History Channel alive, he adds.
Crawford transferred to Drexel from Bucks County Community College in 1982. His first job was with Crossing Construction Co. in Washington Crossing, Pa., working on highways and bridges. He joined Anderson in 2008 and soon began working on the I-95 project.
Elbich went to Drexel because she says she liked to build things. But a family crisis—her father died—threatened to derail her plans. She says her Drexel professors stood by her. “They said, `Don’t give up.’ If they were going to invest in me, I was going to invest in me!”
After graduation, Elbich joined a training program at PennDOT, where she also had completed co-ops. It set her on the path to project management. “It’s solving problems,” she says. “It’s a lot of pieces. I’m a problem solver. There are so many things that could upset the course of a project schedule.”
Like millions of artifacts, she might add.
But under Elbich, the project has moved along, on schedule. It takes a certain dedication, no doubt. “I tell everybody,” she says, “I’m married to a highway.”
By Lini S. Kadaba