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Forensics Team Helps Church Find Graves

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Posted on August 2, 2010

A small cemetery across the street from Chartiers Cross Roads Presbyterian Church in Washington, Pa., always has mystified worshipers. Approximately 50 gravestones mark the remains of past parishioners - hardly a number that fits a church established in 1810.

In order to clarify this mystery, a Cal U forensics team dedicated their time and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to help the church locate unmarked burial locations. GPR measures disruptions in the ground as much as 15 feet below the surface. At this particular location, a soil disturbance is likely to represent buried caskets and remains.

Dr. Cassandra Kuba, assistant professor and chief forensic anthropologist in the Department of Justice, Law and Society; Dr. John Nass, professor and archaeologist in the Department of Justice, Law and Society; and students Adina Necciai, Donetta Snook and Donovan Marcoux worked together to measure disruptions and estimate the number of graves that have lost markers throughout the past two centuries. 

The team first tested the GPR on July 23, to make sure all components were working properly. Using wooden dowels as markers, they then mapped a grid on the property to help determine the specific location and direction in which the remains were buried. 

The following day, team members pushed the GPR along the grid and sent digital records of data to a computer for further review by the forensics team.

As part of an ongoing celebration marking the church's 200th anniversary, parishioners were encouraged to participate in the field research and use the GPR. 

Many of the gravestones remaining in the cemetery are from the mid-1800s, and bear surnames of Scottish, Irish and Welsh descent. It is estimated that the cemetery has 200 to 300 unmarked gravesites.

In addition to using specialized radars and other equipment, forensic anthropology students at Cal U learn to distinguish human remains from animal bones, determine individuals' ancestry and examine specimens for signs of trauma. Please visit the Department of Justice, Law and Society for more information.