You may think that finding human remains is a fairly easy task. When looking at cemeteries like Highgate, which is quite expansive and covered with a variety of elaborate markers honoring the dead, it is difficult to imagine not being able to find the deceased. While it may not be a pleasant thought, the dead are forgotten, their graves are lost. In fact, the news is full of construction crews or even DIY homeowners uncovering skeletal remains from underneath parking lots, while constructing new buildings, or even just doing work in the back yard. One of the reasons that archaeologists do surveys of sites prior to construction is to prevent problems like this. We do extensive historical research on the site, dig test pits to search for potential archaeological material, and are on call during construction in case of an emergency.
It is important to try to find these sites and materials before construction begins. Accidents do happen, not every cemetery is marked on a map and shovel testing only takes a random sample of the area. If we find the cemetery or remains before construction it gives us the opportunity to remove the bones, do analysis and rebury the individuals somewhere safe. Removal of human remains is much better done with trowels and shovels, rather than excavators and backhoes. Besides doing research and shovel testing (which can potentially damage the bodies) we can use a variety of technological tools and even canine help.
One tech tool we can use for finding human remains is ground penetrating radar (GPR). GPR is radio or microwave signal based. The signal is sent into the ground and reflects off of objects, with signal strength varying by the type of material it is passing through. The machine records the depths of penetration and creates an image of the subsurface. Ideally, in cemeteries this produces an image of the grave shaft, and possibly the coffin or vault if present. In an article by Wired, Elizabeth Agin is interviewed about her work using GPR to determine the locations of lost graves. While she uses the technique to determine grave depth and density, she argues that it needs to be used in conjunction with other methods such as aerial photography or magnetometry. “GPR doesn’t work every time, every place,” she says. “When people see it on TV they come away thinking it’s fast and foolproof. Far from it.” The method is a good option for mortuary sites since it is non-invasive, has a high level of accuracy and won’t disturb the bodies. However, the effectiveness depends on soil with some clay rich preventing the signals from penetrating.
Using forensic canines has been a tried and true method for finding the recently deceased. A new search in Ocotillo, California is using these dogs to find the ancient cremated remains of Native Americans. The search is an effort to determine whether this valley is the site of a sacred burial ground prior to construction of the Ocotillo Wind Express facility. So far they have searched 200 of the 12,000 acres of land and discovered at least 32 burials. If enough burials are found, the native americans of the area will have the opportunity to sanctify the site- thereby preventing the construction. Excavation or shovel testing survey was not an option since the tribes don’t want the deceased to be disturbed, so forensic canines was the fastest option.
If you don’t have the money for GPR and you have an allergy to dogs, you could always try finding graves using the dowsing method. Espoused on a number of ancestry and genealogy sites,it is claimed to be a fairly accurate method for finding the deceased. The method involves using a stick or copper rod. You hold two rods or sticks in your hands parallel; when they cross it means that you have passed over a grave (or that you’re very bad at keeping your arms parallel). While some people truly believe this to be an effective method, that the sticks are actually attracted to the dead, it is more likely based on common sense and intuition. If you read the post from the genealogy site you will notice that she gives some common sense cemetery details that would improve your likelihood of crossing your sticks at the correct moment. University of Iowa’s guide to determining the location of burials mentions dowsing as a method. They list the advantages as none and for disadvantages state “Dowsing is no better at finding graves than common-sense intuition… and could lead to public embarrassment”.
So if you are looking to find a missing cemetery or find lost graves, I suggest using methods like GPR, magnetometry, aerial photography, historical and archival research, or canine search teams. Check out the University of Iowa’s guide to cemetery location methods which details various ones as well as their advantages and disadvantages.
Graham 2008. High-Tech Tomb Hunter Finds Unmarked Graves for a Living. Wired Magazine. http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/bodies
Davila 2012. Dogs search for ancient remains on wind farm project site near Ocotillo. Imperial Valley Press. http://www.ivpressonline.com/news/ivp-dogs-search-for-ancient-remains-on-wind-farm-project-site-near-ocotillo-20120717,0,2447573.story