/Archaeologists find lost graves using radar tech

Archaeologists find lost graves using radar tech

Posted

May 11, 2019 07:15:00

Archaeologists have used ground-penetrating radar to discover unmarked graves at an old Aboriginal mission cemetery in south-west Victoria.

Key points:

  • 14 probable unmarked graves as well as 49 other areas that may contain one or more unmarked burials have been identified
  • Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) was used to identify the sites
  • Unmarked graves in regional cemeteries is an issue nationwide

A team from Flinders University was invited by the Gunditj Mirring people to investigate the Lake Condah Mission cemetery, which is still used by the community.

Two weeks of scanning was done in 2012, but the research has only recently been peer-reviewed and published.

It revealed “14 probable unmarked graves as well as 49 other areas that may contain one or more unmarked burials”.

But since the project at Lake Condah was undertaken, the Flinders University team has been bombarded with requests from other regional communities, according to the university’s senior research fellow in archaeological sciences, Ian Moffat.

A country cemetery dilemma

“This issue of unmarked graves particularly in cemeteries in regional areas is a huge problem,” Dr Moffat said.

“I would go out on a limb and say that nearly every rural community in Australia has got some sort of issue involving unmarked graves.”

He said regional cemeteries are still in use but “you can imagine [that] in the past great records weren’t always kept [and] headstones have been lost”.

Dr Moffat and his team have been using ground-penetrating radar in South Australian areas such as the Eyre Peninsula, Lake Wangary, the Riverland and Kangaroo Island recently to help identify areas where unmarked graves may exist in historic cemeteries.

“It’s a great case study of how community organisations can use these sorts of technologies to manage their cultural heritage,” he said.

Underneath the radar

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) can be used in everything from environmental engineering and mining studies to ancient archaeology and even murder investigations.

“GPR is pretty much the same as the sort of radar you might see at an airport tracking the planes going in and out but instead of looking up into the sky you point that radar down into the ground,” Dr Moffat said.

“The radar reflects back off any changes in the soil structure, so that could be from the soil changing from a sand to a silt.

“In terms of the grave detection, unfortunately it’s very difficult to see a coffin or see skeletal material directly, particularly in a cemetery that’s got some older burials in it, like the Lake Condah one, so what we’re actually looking for is the disturbance in the soil layers that’s caused by the grave being dug.

“So you can imagine if you dig out the hole all of those soil layers get all mixed up when the soil gets thrown back in and that change shows up really well with GPR so it’s a great way to map unmarked graves.”

Names to be memorialised

In the case of Lake Condah Mission cemetery, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation approached Flinders University looking for a non-invasive way to assess the past and future of its cemetery.

“Our community has always been concerned about the unmarked graves and unidentified graves at Lake Condah Mission,” chief executive Damein Bell said, with a burial taking place in the cemetery every couple of years.

He said the process took about two weeks using a scanner that looked like “a really flat lawn mower”.

“From the results we were able to confirm 12 unidentified grave sites, but there were other sites there that had ground disturbance that the radar had identified,” Mr Bell said.

“With the 12 graves that were identified we went out and put some markers there to protect them and let people know where they are because our community still uses the cemetery and we didn’t want to be putting people on top of each other.

“Luckily with some of those graves the community members today knew who was in there.

Mr Bell said the traditional owners have a list of about 100 names of people whose graves are unaccounted for or unmarked in the cemetery.

“The community wants to do a memorial that has those names out there from the death certificates,” he said.

“Something that will respect the place where they’re resting and make sure the future generations know who they’re looking after.”

Topics:

history,

archaeology,

regional,

indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander,

indigenous-culture,

death,

science-and-technology,

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portland-3305,

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wangary-5607,

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