Chiarulli and Pace Describe Research on “Lost” Graves in Historic Cemeteries

Posted on 1/26/2013 3:08:29 PM

Meghan Pace, a graduate student in the M.A. in Applied Archaeology program, presented a poster she and faculty member Beverly Chiarulli coauthored at the 93rd annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. on January 15, 2013.

The poster, titled “Multi-Instrument Geophysical Investigations of Historic Cemeteries,” described research in historic cemeteries using geophysical instruments to locate “lost” or unmarked graves. In one section of the poster, Pace described her research in Memorial Park in Indiana, Pa. In another section, Chiarulli described research that she and Pace conducted in an historic cemetery in DuBois. The poster will be available in mid-March through TRB Annual Meeting Online, a collection of information resources from the annual meeting.

The Transportation Research Board TRB is one of six major divisions of the National Research Council—a private, nonprofit institution that is the principal operating agency of the National Academies in providing services to the to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities. The annual meeting attracted 11,700 transportation professionals from around the world to Washington, D.C., January 13-17, 2013.

Meghan Pace at the TRB Poster Session
Meghan Pace at the TRB Poster Session


Historic cemeteries are both archaeological and historic resources. They provide tangible evidence of a community’s or a family’s past. Community cemeteries remind us of our past, even if we have no direct ancestors buried there, by the reminders they contain of the cultural and religious influences that have made our communities what they are today. Because they are fragile resources, cemetery preservation efforts have become an important venue for community preservation efforts. However, these efforts are often hampered by the lack of detailed records on the location of graves, the common perception that cemeteries contain more graves than those marked by headstones, the rumors that many graves were relocated, and oral histories that suggest some graves were located beyond the current marked boundaries. All of these can be combined into a larger problem of determining if any particular cemetery contains “lost graves.”

Geophysical instruments can be used to identify soil anomalies, but are less successful in determining which are actual unmarked graves and which are natural soil anomalies without some kind of excavation. The development of methods using nondestructive technologies would be of great benefit to cemetery preservation efforts. This project describes a nondestructive approach to the problem of identifying “lost” graves in historic cemeteries which combines three advanced technologies: ground penetrating radar, the Bartington MS2H Downhole sensor, and the Olympus Delta X Premium XRF Analyzer.

While ground penetrating radar has been commonly used in cemetery investigations, it is often difficult to determine if the anomalies represent graves or changes in bedrock formations. The Bartington MS2H Downhole sensor can be used with a small probe to assess the organic composition of the anomaly profile. The Olympus XRF Analyzer can then analyze the mineral composition of soil removed by the probe to identify possible minerals associated with grave decomposition, including calcium.

This poster describes the preliminary results of the application of this methodology to the investigation of two historic cemeteries in Western Pennsylvania.

Department of Anthropology