What lies Beneath? Base cemeteries undergo ground penetrating radar search for unmarked graves

  • Published
  • By Amanda Creel
  • 78th ABW/PA
Few people put much thought into which way the headstones of a cemetery face.

However, it took just moments for Matthew Barner, a senior geophysicist, to notice the orientation in the Feagin Cemetery seemed backwards.

He said graves typically were placed where those buried could sit-up and face the eastern sky, however the Feagin Cemetery located behind the Robins Child Development Center West, appeared to face the West. This immediately piqued his curiosity and the curiosity of Stephen Hammack, base archeologist.

Mr. Barner, an employee with the URS Corporation, was visiting Robins in an effort to use Ground Penetrating Radar to identify any unmarked graves at the Feagin Cemetery and the King Cemetery.

Most of the King Cemetery graves are marked by stacks of bricks, while in the Feagin Cemetery seven graves are marked by headstones.

Mr. Barner and Mr. Hammack spent two days at the cemeteries using GPR and an EM 38, or Electromagnetic-Induction Meter, to identify areas where the ground might have been excavated or disturbed.

"The best way to describe GPR is it is the engineering equivalent of an ultrasound," Mr. Barner said.

The GPR sends radar waves into the ground and back and the reflections from their journey can help determine what is beneath the surface, such as being able to tell if someone had hand dug a trench for a burial site or how large a body is in a burial site.

"You will not see a huge reflection for an infant, like you would for an adult," Mr. Barner said.

The GPR system can measure up to six feet deep accurately and many of the possible sites identified as possible gravesites were about two feet below the surface, which is shallower than Mr. Barnes expected. However, Mr. Hammack said it was not uncommon for graves in historic cemeteries to be found a few feet or even inches away from the surface.

"There have been sites found where graves and bones are literally inches under the surface," Mr. Hammack said.

He added as time passes erosion and construction work or bulldozing on the land can make the grave shallower.

One of the mysteries of the Feagin Cemetery is whether or not the fence enclosing the cemetery includes all of the burial sites, Mr. Hammack said.

As Mr. Barner continued to scan the grounds in and around the cemetery, he found several areas he described as "a textbook reflection of a grave."

Near a large live oak tree just outside the cemetery's gates, Mr. Barner found what appeared to be three side-by-side graves.

Inside the gates only seven marked graves remain, but several others are expected to have been lost over time.

"Some of the graves could have been marked by semi-permanent markers that deteriorate over time such as wooden markers," Mr. Hammack said. "It was not uncommon for people to not have the money to mark all of the family's gravesites."

Only two of the identified graves in the cemetery belong to members of the Feagin family - Henry Feagin, the family patriarch, and Jim Bob, the grandson he never knew. A third marked grave for Missouri Feagin, Henry's wife, in the early '90s, was based on the tradition that the wife be buried to the right of her husband and not facts, said Mr. Hammack.

"We have no evidence whatsoever that his wife, Missouri, was buried here," Mr. Hammack said. Later that day after the area to the right of Henry Feagin's grave was examined by GPR Mr. Hammack said, "There is definitely a body here, even though it might not be Missouri."

There are also five marked graves in the cemetery where infants of military members at Robins were buried in the 1940s and '50s.

Once the GPR cart passed over the site like a push mower, the EM 38 passed over the cemetery's ground twice - once to indicate soil disturbances and a second time to indicate the presence of metals, such as in lead coffins, first used in the 1850s, or nails used in wooden coffins.

"If people were buried with jewelry it might give off a signal as well," Mr. Barner said.

At the King family cemetery, none of the graves are marked with names, but the sites are marked with bricks on the ground arranged like a slab, Mr. Hammack said.

"Paying attention to vegetation and trees can be very important when trying to locate unmarked gravesites," he said.

The existence of the Yucca plant at the King Cemetery is important because about 100 years ago it became popular to plant it at the head of a grave stone, Mr. Hammack said.

Though many of the areas explored had reflections similar to a gravesite more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn, the pair explained.

The reflection of a gravesite could be confused with large rocks, utility lines, large tree roots or anything else in the ground that is distinctly different than the soil, Mr. Barner said.

This was not the first time the cemeteries have been examined to determine if unmarked graves exist.

In 1993 a study estimated as many as 32 gravesites at the Feagin Cemetery and as many as 64 at the King Cemetery. During the original examinations of the gravesites, tile probe rods were used to search for gravesites.

"They would just poke the ground and probe around looking for a shaft, if the probe rod got stuck near the surface there was nothing there, but if it all of a sudden sinks into the ground then there could be a grave there," Mr. Hammack said.

The results of the present study will be combined with the probing study done earlier and other historical facts and used to make recommendations for the two cemeteries such as extending the fence at the Feagin Cemetery if it is determined gravesites are present outside the fence. Gravesites are protected by federal and Georgia laws, Mr. Hammack said.

After completing the search last week, Mr. Hammack said he does not believe the amount of unidentified graves is as great as the original study estimated, but he is fairly confidant there are several unmarked graves at both locations.