By Kristin J. Wilson, Physical Anthropologist/Archaeologist

Although you can identify many apparently unmarked graves simply by looking for rectangular depressions on the ground surface or for intentionally placed fieldstones, other historic burials are more difficult to locate. Most historic cemeteries contain unmarked graves. When development, improvements, additional interments, or even relocation, threatens a historic cemetery, it is important to find and document all existing graves to prevent accidental intrusion.

One of the most effective, minimally invasive methods for located unmarked graves is systematic probing. Historic sources tell us that pioneers used probing to locate existing interments before burying their loved ones in a family graveyard or rural cemetery. Probing detects softer areas where the ground has been disturbed. The surrounding, intact soil remains more compacted. Archaeologists have been using the method for the last 25 years or so to good effect. In fact, some states, like Georgia, have laws that require archaeologists to locate all graves and delineate the boundaries of historic cemeteries slated for development.

To probe for unmarked graves, you will need a metal probe measuring 3 to 3 ½ feet in length and 1/8 inch in diameter. It is best to use a probe fitted for replaceable steel tips since the tips wear out quickly. These items are available at environmental supply companies like Ben Meadows (http://www.benmeadows.com) for under $30. Do not use longer probes or augers as they may penetrate the coffin chambers and contact human remains. Despite common belief, historic graves are rarely as deep as six feet.

Before starting, be sure to obtain permission to probe the cemetery from the appropriate authorities, such as church officials, city managers, or descendants of those interred. If possible, ask a qualified archaeologist to demonstrate the technique. Keep safety in mind, also. Wear sturdy shoes. Some people prefer to wear gloves or to pad the probe handle with foam pipe insulation to cushion the hands.

Since most historic graves are oriented east-west with the head to the west (reflecting the Christian belief that the dead will face the rising sun on Judgment Day), the probe transects should be oriented north-south to maximize the chances of locating a soil anomaly (possible grave shaft). Set up your starting positions beyond the boundaries of the cemetery or area that you wish to investigate.

Probe transects should not be more than three or four feet apart. Closer interval testing will reduce the chances of missing small child or infant graves. Push the probe into the ground at 6-12 inch intervals feeling for soft spots. It is helpful to probe known graves as well as areas where there are no graves to get a feel for the difference. When you encounter a soft area, probe around it and try to determine the shape of the anomaly. Round or oval areas are often rotted trees or rodent burrows. Rectangular east-west oriented graves are more likely graves. When you find a grave, find a way to mark that location. Metal spikes in the four corners of the grave work well, because they are easy to find later using metal detectors. Plastic flagging or string will often deteriorate, but they work well for temporary identification purposes.

Once you locate all the possible unmarked graves, put them on a map, or better yet, have a registered surveyor create a certified map. File the information with your local land records office so that those burial locations are not lost again.