Where in the hell am I?

February 7, 2013

More scattershot thoughts on graves

Filed under: archaeology, CRM — Tags: , , , , , — John @ 10:11 pm

The Richard III story is not the only reason I’ve been thinking about graves, cemeteries, and such recently. Bear with me.

I’ve been working on a survey report at work, and the people who did the survey identified two small family cemeteries and an isolated grave. It would be wrong to call them unknown cemeteries, as all had at least some markers and defined boundaries (the isolated grave even had a newer marker, as the grave itself is almost 150 years old). However, they had not been officially documented, and had pieces of stone that may indicate graves of unidentified people. Some background research indicated that other small, old cemeteries have bois d’arc stakes that serve as grave markers.

Many cemeteries (and I would assume most if not all “official cemeteries”) are depicted on topographic maps, even some on private property. When we do background research prior to starting the fieldwork on a project, one of the things we look for are cemeteries, and known cemeteries are included as a resource on the Texas Archeological Sites Atlas. There are also a lot of online resources with cemetery documentation, including transcriptions of headstone inscriptions.

My grandparents’ farm in Ohio is next to the local cemetery (they’re now buried there, RIP, along with many of my ancestors). But there was also a fenced off, grassy area in the corner of one of their fields that I wasn’t allowed to go into. It was a small cemetery. I don’t know how many graves are in there, I’d guess somewhere around 4-6. I remember being told that one of the people buried there was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and another was the first white girl born in Preble County (note: that’s my memory and I can’t promise I’m correct about the interments). My family kept the grass down, and maintained the fence, and I understand now that someone (perhaps a descendent, or just someone with an interest in old cemeteries and genealogy) keeps it up and has done some research.

In my almost 9 years working as an archaeologist, and with hundreds (if not thousands) of miles of survey under my boots, I’ve never found an unrecorded cemetery or grave. I did have a great experience a few years back getting a tour of a cemetery on private property (click here for the post, one of my favorite ever). It seems easy enough to record one, especially if it has clear boundaries and headstones.

Most projects just avoid “unknown” cemeteries. It’s possible to move graves, but complicated. I know of projects involving excavating and relocating whole cemeteries, when it’s cost-effective to do so. But generally, cemeteries are avoided. State law in Texas requires a 100-foot buffer for project impacts (if I recall correctly, I generally just cut-and-paste or have the reference handy), although mitigation measures can be taken if a smaller buffer is needed. This is because people used to occasionally buried outside of cemetery boundaries, particularly poor people who couldn’t afford a plot or a professional burial.

One thing that is done as mitigation, to locate possible unmarked graves, is “scraping” the areas between the known cemetery boundary and the project impact area. This involves having a backhoe (or similar heavy equipment) strip the upper few inches of soil from the ground, looking for soil anomalies that may indicate an unmarked grave. There are now far less intrusive (but more expensive) ways of searching for unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar. It’s not perfect, but it’s less damaging. I’ve seen this done relatively recently¬† (and that’s all I can say).

Sorry for the random nature of this post, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!

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