We tend to think of cemeteries as places where time has stopped, yet cemeteries are cultural products with a history. A number of natural and cultural processes act to transform these places over time, often obscuring those features that allow us to recognize individual graves or even entire cemeteries. A critical and long-standing challenge in the preservation field has been finding unmarked graves.

Downhole imaging at the Campbell Cemetery

Downhole imaging at the Campbell Cemetery

Near-surface geophysical techniques would appear ideally suited to solve this problem. Not only are they efficient, but in contrast to excavation techniques, they allow one to “look” into the ground without disturbing the graves they are attempting to find. Yet countless projects involving a battery of methods have left researchers less than satisfied. These surveys do not guarantee that all or even most graves are found and they often confuse graves with other sources of disturbance.

Steven De Vore and researcher map a site

Steven De Vore and researcher map a site

Using a PTT grant, researchers Rinita Dalan (Minnesota State University Moorhead), Steven De Vore (National Park Service, Midwest Archeological Center), and Berle Clay (Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc.) tested a new approach using minimally-invasive down-hole geophysical measurements aimed at improving near-surface geophysical results. Their research involved the use of a magnetic susceptibility sensor introduced down a small diameter (approximately 1 inch) hole made with a hand-held corer together with magnetic analyses of soil samples to recognize soil disturbance associated with the excavation and refilling of grave shafts.

Partnering with the Sac and Fox of Missouri and the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska allowed them to test this approach at two Native American family cemeteries in Nebraska and Kansas. In conjunction with an excavation project conducted by the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, they were able to test down-hole techniques for grave shaft recognition and to also investigate magnetic properties of burials.

Researcher takes magnetic measurements in the laboratory

Researcher takes magnetic measurements in the laboratory

Their investigations revealed a distinctive magnetic signature for grave shafts related to differential soil compaction, often most apparent at depths not tested by soil compaction instruments. Thus, down-hole measurements could be employed to evaluate whether near-surface geophysical targets actually corresponded to grave shafts or even to explore targeted areas where graves were suspected. Their limited studies of burials indicated magnetic characteristics associated with interments that might be used, in excavation contexts, as a means of burial identification where grave goods and skeletal remains are lacking. Although not a replacement for near-surface surveys, these techniques show promise for improving capabilities in the identification, evaluation, and thus the preservation of graves.

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2 Responses to Identification of Unmarked Graves

  1. Lisa Howard says:

    I recently was gifted the family cemetery that I never knew existed until now. I have stones that are worn away because they were carved out and not in. Some of the lettering is gone. I am using my own money and I don’t have a lot to spare. I have come up with using a Dremil tool and carving wood replacements to set next to the stone. I would really like to help the deterioration of the stones. Can you give me some hints on how to save them?

    • Q Stroeing says:


      You should be proud of what your doing to preserve & restore the gravestones cemetery……because I am proud of you for taking on this task.

      I don’t know where the cemetery is located, if it is still an active burial ground, the number of graves, if gravesites are sold to the general public or just to family, etc. so hard to provide definative answers.

      Depending on the state where this cemetery is located, there must be grants or government assistance available so you don’t have to take on 100% of the cost. Some states have laws that require the cemetery owner (family or organization) to cover the cost themselves or include maintaince fees when graves are sold. But many counties will assist with financial support to some degree and even some states might provide support. I suggest contacting your county commissioners, local city counsel members, state reps, state senators, state cemetery organizations, etc to inquire about what resources might be available to you.

      You may want to get local media to cover your story and use that opportunity to get volunteers or local businesses to help you with this project (if that is something you want.) I think you’d be surprised at how many eager people will want to help clean up a cemetery.

      If there are military markers that need to be replaced, the US Govt (VA Services) will replace the markers for free if the markers are damaged. The government does not cover cost to install the gravestone in private cemeteries.

      Make sure to map and document your cemetery for future generations. You can use Find A Grave (www.findagrave) to support the documentation efforts online.

      Best of luck to you on this project. Would love to get an update from you.

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