Understanding Cemeteries through Technical Applications: An example from Fort Drum, NY

A few times each year, the SHA Technology Committee hosts Tech Week, an entire week devoted to certain technologies used in historical archaeology. This week, archaeologist Duane Quates was asked to gather blog posts about the use of technology in mortuary analysis.

Fort Drum, New York has a surprisingly rich history and the 13 historic cemeteries of Fort Drum are a profound reminder of the communities that existed prior to the Army’s acquisition of the now 107,000 acre military reservation in 1941. Current technologies such as LiDAR, GIS, database management software, and geophysical technologies, such as ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, and electrical soil resistivity are providing the base archaeologists with innovative tools to understand and mange these resources responsibly.

Figure 1: The grave of William Anderson and his wife Elizabeth

One of the many aspects of the cemeteries that I found interesting is that there are only two known African American gravestones out of 1802 known burials. One grave is that of William Anderson and his wife Elizabeth located in the Gates Cemetery near Historic Sterlingville. The second is that of Rachel, a former slave of James Leray, in the Sheepfold Cemetery. The graves in both of these cemeteries are very similar in that they are alone in the back of the cemetery, segregated from the rest of the burials.

Unfortunately the archaeological record of the base is very similar in its representation of the African American community. To date, the Cultural Resources Program at Fort Drum has identified 962 sites on the 107,000 acre military reservation. Over 65% of the recorded sites are historic. However, only two known sites are considered to have an African American component; the LeRay Mansion Slave Quarters and the Whitney Farmstead. The first is associated with James LeRay de Chaumont, a French capitalist and land speculator, whose family fortune was acquired largely from the transatlantic slave trade. The second is associated with a 19th century farmstead that, unfortunately, is poorly understood. This assemblage includes trade beads from Gambia, West Africa, as well as Lamoka points from the late Archaic Period.

The Fort Drum Cultural Resources Program manages and maintains the cemeteries of the post. Rachel’s marker is one that has given us the most concern. It is made of a poor quality marble that has frost fractured several times. Each time the Fort Drum Cultural Resources Program has repaired it with epoxy but unfortunately time and weather has taken its toll on the stone. The epitaph is no longer fully legible.

Figure 2: The grave of Rachel

In April 2010 at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in Sacramento, CA, while perusing the book room, I met Bill Mongon of Accurex, Inc. in the technology section of the book room. He was demonstrating a multi-lens camera that was capable of building a 3D model of almost any object. What I found fascinating was the system’s capability of finding minute details on objects that were not detectable by the naked eye. I asked if there were any field applications for the device. Bill suggested that he travel to Fort Drum and provide a demonstration by scanning Rachel’s grave stone. The demonstration at Rachel’s grave site went beautifully. The system performed perfectly in spite of a continual rain that drenched us. Fortunately, scanning Rachel’s grave stone took only 2 hours.

Figure 3: 3D scan of Rachel’s grave stone

In figure 3 the epitaph is very clear, which reads: “Rachel A good & faithful nurse. Died Jan. 10 1834.” The lower epitaph reads “This monument was placed in her memory by her loving children Vincent & Alexander LeRay de Chaumont & Therese de Gouvello.” Ironically, one year after this scan was done, while giving a tour of the cemetery I found the grave stone broken into several pieces by a large oak tree that had come down in a wind storm. Fortunately, we have the 3D scan of the stone allowing us to replicate it.

In 2010, the Cultural Resources Program at Fort Drum embarked on a new project to answer several pressing concerns about the cemeteries. First, we suspected that there were unmarked graves surrounding the two known African American grave markers. Military training had the potential to encroach upon the boundaries of the Sheepfold Cemetery where Rachel lies, with the new development and expansion of nearby training course. It was necessary to know, with absolute certainty, whether the boundary of the cemetery was accurate or if there were burials outside of the fence. Second, we also wanted to make a concerted effort to find whether there were other African American graves in the other cemeteries on the base.

To answer these questions, an inventory of our cemeteries was necessary and then the attributes could be compared. Once that was completed and the African American graves identified, geophysical surveys would be conducted in the vivinity. Unfortunately, the staff did not have the expertise or training needed to perform the geophysical surveys. Fortunately, I was able to acquire funding to hire an intern, Mike Sprowles, through the Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) to complete the project.

Mike started the project by creating a database and developing the attributes that he intended to record. The database became something more than what was originally intended. His database can compare attributes of all 1802 burials and search for similarities. It also has the capability of tracking the conditions of each stone and is a perfect tool to manage the cemeteries. Finally, it is searchable by name and can be used by any member of the public for genealogical research. He finished the inventory in just 10 months and we publicly launched the database as a genealogy tool in October of 2012. He has surveyed both the Gates cemetery and the Sheepfold cemetery and found several anomalies consistent with unmarked burials near Rachel’s grave stone.

But I digress. I will let Mike explain this project in his own words in his blog post. Also, the Tech Week Blog will feature Dr. Michael Heilen of Statistical Research Inc., discussing the Alameda-Stone Cemetery in Tucson, AZ, as well as Katy Meyers, PhD. Candidate at Michigan State University, with her post on the spatial analysis of the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Livingston County, New York. These posts have several things in common. All discuss the use of GIS and databases in their analyses. However, each is unique in how they demonstrate the advantages of these technologies in cemetery studies. The thing that excites me about archaeology’s use of technology is the surprising results one gets when applying various techniques to a particular problem. Technology has a way of finding answers to questions that you never intended to ask.

Read the First Post in this week’s Tech Week: “Examining Space of a Resting Place: GIS of a New York Cemetery” by Katy Meyers.

Examining Space of a Resting Place: GIS of a New York Cemetery

This post is part of Tech Week, which highlights a group of posts about specific applications of technology to archaeological investigations. This week, the focus is on Technology and Mortuary Archaeology. See the other posts in this series here.

“Will you be buried or will you be cremated? I think I’d like to be buried so I have a headstone like Elvis. Though I think that when you have a headstone and you’re in a place it puts great pressure on your family, your surviving family, to visit you.”

-Rob Brydon, The Trip

Place is important. As Brydon says in the movie “The Trip”, place allows you to create a mark and leave something tangible behind in your memory, but it also puts a responsibility upon the mourning community. Place gives us a sense of belonging, a heritage and ancestry, and a deeper connection to our surroundings. Burials are the final statement of place that humans get to make- for themselves through wills, for their loved ones, or even for their enemies in battle. Both the manner of the burial, memorial and the place are important.

The memorials of the deceased reflect the historical present in which they were buried. Grave markers, location of burial and epitaphs all follow trends that help us better interpret what was of social importance during these periods. Due to the high emotion of death, the trends associated with burial are usually slow to change and have high social significance. Examining the patterns of grave markers and epitaphs aids in creating more nuanced interpretations of how individuals wanted to memorialize and remember their relatives, and also how these patterns changed through time.  As Cannon (2002:191) argues: “the growth and transformation of these expressions over time can therefore be read as a historical narrative of individual choices made in response to spatial representations of the immediate past and perceptions of current and anticipated social and political circumstances”.

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer based program that allows us create spatial maps in order to visualize, analyze, and interpret data to reveal patterns. Spatial data (data with longitude and latitude, or other geographic coordinates) is given attribute data (any information about the spatial points such as type of grave marker, date of death, name of individual buried within), and is input into GIS. The program has a number of statistical and spatial tools that allow us to analyze the spatial patterns of the associated attributes. An example would be examining whether individuals near to one another were died in similar years. By using GIS, we can better analyze historic cemeteries to understand the importance of place in both the deceased and mourning communities.

The Mount Pleasant Cemetery is approximately an acre in size, and located off Interstate 390 and Route 20A in Livingston County, New York (Figure 1). It is one of ten cemeteries registered to the town of Geneseo, a small farming community established in 1790. The Mount Pleasant Cemetery was established in the early 1800’s by the Kelly Family, and was the first cemetery for Presbyterians in the area. The original date of origin is unknown, though newspaper clippings from the 1850’s note that it was already well established by then. From an outsider perspective, the cemetery appears to have a random organization, lacking distinct rows and coordinated orientations to cardinal directions. In order to better interpret one of the early cemeteries of this small New York community, GIS was employed.

Each grave marker was spatially located using GPS, and attribute data was taken. Stones were first given a ranking of primary through quaternary. It was immediately apparent upon collecting the data that stones fell into a number of categories based on ancestry. Most of the plots within the cemetery were small and consisted of one large grave marker with the family name, and then a number of secondary, tertiary and quaternary stones in increasing distance from the primary marker. The primary stone included the main family stone only, usually found at the center of the plot with the patriarch’s name and death date highlighted, and other family members listed below. Secondary markers were smaller and usually lacked personal names, instead noting only familial relationship to the patriarch. Tertiary and quaternary markers were often different in style, material, and contained more information such as name and death date. Style of grave marker was also noted, and included obelisk, column, mausoleum, pulpit, tablet and flush. Family name, epitaph and death date were also recorded. In total, 34 family plots and 265 grave markers were mapped and assigned attribute data on ranking, style, and dates (Figure 2).

The presence of these large family memorials and lack of personal names reveals the high importance of family. Due to this, the analysis using GIS was employed to determine whether distance to the family marker correlated to dates or relationship, and whether space within each plot had specific organization. Both nearest neighbor and Moran’s I was employed. Neither revealed any strong correlation between the rank of the stone, relationship of the person and distance to the primary family marker. Instead, the stone appear to have more random distribution within the family plot. This, however, does seem to be a common characteristic of this era and style of cemetery. As Mytum (2004:126) writes, “such memorials usually have no individual epitaphs or descriptors of any kind, and it would seem that after death all that mattered was familial association”. Other GIS studies such as Hoogendoorn 2007 found similar results, with stone organization being due to family relationship.

However, an analysis purely of style revealed that there were areas in the cemetery where specific styles of family markers were more popular than others. Further examination revealed this was related to date and shows the growth of the cemetery and change in the fashion trend. However, this correlation works for only the earliest date. The cemetery continues to be used, and families have maintained their connections with their 19th century ancestors. These newer stones, usually quaternary, have the names of the individual and their death date written on them rather than simply being noted on the family marker like the secondary or tertiary markers.

Place is important throughout our lives, and our final burial location is indicative of this importance. GIS is a powerful tool to allow us to find patterns and from these make interpretations of why communities chose to bury their loved ones in specific arrangements. It is interesting to watch this landscape change as we become more mobile, and people are less tied to their ancestral lands. It seems now that the place we find important, and one that may be our lasting memorial is more digital, such as Facebook pages for the deceased… but this is a conversation for another post.

Read the Second Post in Tech Week: “Application of Advanced Technologies in Excavation, Analysis, Consultation, and Reburial: The Alameda-Stone Cemetery in Tucson Arizona” by Michael Heilen

Works Cited

Cannon, Aubrey
2002 “Spatial Narratives of Death, Memory and Transcendence” in Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 11(1) Jan. 2002: 191-199.

Hoogendoorn, Arie, Jeffrey C. Brunskill, PhD and Sandra Kehoe-Forutan
2007 “A Study of Spatial and Temporal Anomolies Associated with the Placement of Gravestones at McHenry Cemetery in Orangeville, Pennsylvania”. Poster presented at Middle States Division of the Association of American Geographers, Pennsylvania, November 2007.

Mytum, Harold
2004 Mortuary Monuments and Burial Grounds of the Historic Period. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York.

Application of Advanced Technologies in Excavation, Analysis, Consultation, and Reburial: The Alameda-Stone Cemetery in Tucson, Arizona

This post is part of Tech Week, which highlights a group of posts about specific applications of technology to archaeological investigations. This week, the focus is on Technology and Mortuary Archaeology. See the other posts in this series here.

In recent years, the technologies that have affected most how archaeologists do their work are digital and computing technologies. These technologies can greatly improve the accuracy, precision, and efficiency of archaeology as well as enhance our ability to analyze, share, and curate the data we generate. Of these tools, some of the most useful have been relational databases, geographic information systems, visualization tools, and digital mapping instruments, such as global positioning systems, total stations, and lidar.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a large, highly complex, and community-sensitive excavation project in downtown Tucson, Arizona. The project was very important to Pima County—the project sponsor—the city of Tucson, and to multiple descendant communities. The project site was the location of the long-abandoned Alameda-Stone cemetery, a cemetery used by residents of the Village of Tucson beginning in the late 1850s or early 1860s. Divided into several sections, the civilian sections were closed to further burial in 1875, while the military section was closed in 1881. The 1,800 to 2,100 people buried in the cemetery were of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, including individuals of Hispanic Catholic, Euroamerican Protestant, Jewish, Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, and Apache backgrounds, as well as military personnel.

After the cemetery was closed, a few hundred burials were moved to new cemeteries, but most were left in the ground. As Tucson urbanized and grew, buildings, streets, and utilities were built throughout the cemetery and all visible reminders of the cemetery were erased. Despite these disturbances, many of the burials remained intact when the cemetery was professionally excavated by Statistical Research, Inc. in 2006-2008.

To comply with legal requirements, including burial agreements for the cemetery excavation, all human remains and burial-associated objects within the 4.3 acre project area had to be recovered. The discovery of burials had to be reported daily and the location and status of all recovered items and materials had to be tracked throughout the duration of the project. Due to the large number of descendant groups who could claim remains from the cemetery, the cultural affinity of human remains and burial associated objects had to be established as firmly as possible using multiple lines of archival, contextual, and osteological evidence. Moreover, the project needed to be completed from beginning to end within a period of just four years. Most projects of this size are performed over a substantially longer time frame.

Figure 1. Use of a TEREX Powerscreen Mark II to recover artifacts and osteological materials from the project area overburden (image courtesy of SRI Press and Left Coast Press).

A variety of new technologies were used to accomplish these goals. Since all human remains had to be recovered, screening of the massive volume of cultural deposits, including overburden,  was necessary (Figure 1). Burial features were excavated by hand, but fragmentary remains were also present in secondary contexts in areas of the cemetery where burials had been disturbed. The recovery of these materials was accomplished using construction equipment and an automated screening machine. These tools required an operator to run and maintain, but their use greatly sped up the search effort and enabled all cultural deposits to be thoroughly screened.

To glean as much information as possible from exposed burials, burials were intensively documented in situ using photogrammetry and three-dimensional laser scanning, in addition to more traditional mapping techniques (Figure 2). Maps of burial features were then created in a geospatial laboratory using point-provenienced spatial data, orthorectified digital photos, 3-D scanning data, and analysis data. Recovered artifacts were stored and analyzed onsite and bagged using printed, bar-coded labels that allowed all recovered materials to be accurately provenienced and tracked throughout the project.

Figure 2. Illustration of the mapping process for Grave 13614, Burial 21829, an adult Euroamerican male (courtesy of SRI Press and Left Coast Press)

Excavation resulted in the intensive investigation of more than 1000 burial features and the recovery of the remains of more than 1300 individuals, making this one of the largest excavations of a historical-period cemetery conducted in the United States. Excavation also documented several prehistoric features predating the cemetery and more than 700 post-cemetery features, including building foundations, privy pits, utility trenches, and landscaping features. Use of the above technologies decreased field time considerably, making better use of field labor and allowing greater attention to be focused on analysis, reporting, and consultation efforts.

All the resulting data collected in the field and laboratory were stored in a sophisticated relational database system. The system allowed analysts to query and manipulate massive volumes of data in a flexible and consistent manner in support of diverse analyses and to differentiate remains according to cultural affinity, as required by the project burial agreement. In addition, the system provided a platform for tracking all the project materials from the moment they were discovered in the field until they were reburied or repatriated. As the project came to a close, the remains of more than 1300 individuals were repatriated or reburied. Advanced technologies continued to play a role in facilitating this stage of the project by ensuring that remains were repatriated and reburied correctly according to the wishes of descendant groups.

Of course, use of advanced technologies is not an alternative to solid, traditional research or careful project management. Much consideration and effort is needed to ensure that technologies are used appropriately and effectively. Many of the technologies implemented during the project require monetary investment to purchase or lease and, to implement them successfully, training or hiring of staff with specialized skills. Substantial computing resources are needed—including servers, networks, and software—and these have to be built, operated, and managed by skilled professionals. Archaeologists and other staff working on the project had to learn collectively how to make these technologies work together to answer research questions and fulfill project requirements. The project database and geographic information system had to be coordinated and continuously tested to make sure these systems were operating properly and analysts were working with the correct and most up-to-date data.

It was also important to ensure that the use of a technology did not take on a life of its own. Technologies are only useful insofar as they fulfill a need. Project leaders had to continually question how and whether a technology was successful in meeting a need of the project and to consider what could be done to improve performance. For a project of this size, which had as many as 70 people in the field at any one time and employed upwards of 150 people of diverse backgrounds and positions, project leaders had to manage positions as much as they managed people. People came and went over the course of the project, but the position they occupied always needed to be filled. Similarly, many computers, servers, and instruments were used over the course of the project. Some components failed or needed periodic maintenance, but the technology always had to be managed, monitored, and properly maintained.

Finally, many of the technologies used in archaeology today were not designed specifically to address archaeological problems. Substantial effort and planning can be needed to adapt technologies to archaeological needs and to develop systems and protocols for their use in an archaeological context. The unique requirements of the excavation project provided the rationale and funding for a large investment in advanced technologies, particularly those involved in mapping and database systems. Other projects could likely benefit from similar technologies but may not have the staffing or funding to invest in or manage them. What can the discipline do to foster the wider application of technology to archaeological problems and to promote broader access? Further, what are the most effective ways for archaeologists to share information on where technologies succeed, where they fail, and how they can be improved?

Read the final Tech Week piece “Mortuary Analytics on US Army Garrison, Fort Drum, NY” by Michael Sprowles

Further Reading:

Heilen, Michael P. (editor)
2012 Uncovering Identity in Mortuary Analysis: Community-Sensitive Methods for Identifying Group Affiliation in Historical-Period Cemeteries. SRI Press, Tucson, Arizona and Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.