CULLOWHEE – Students and professors at Western Carolina University are using ground-penetrating radar to help a group of Jackson County volunteers locate gravesites and boundaries of an abandoned cemetery near the university.
On a recent winter day, Rob Young, associate professor of geology at Western, and student researchers used two small antennas that send electromagnetic pulses up to 20 feet into the earth to detect underground signs of soil disturbances that may show burial sites.
The equipment was strapped to a plastic sled, which the students pulled across the ground as the antennas shot waves into soil. Young monitored the radar waves via a laptop computer, where the fluctuations of horizontal lines on the screen indicated changes beneath the soil.
“I was actually a little surprised with the quality of the data we were getting,” said Young, who has been working at the abandoned graveyard at the suggestion of Jane Eastman, assistant professor of anthropology at Western. “We plan to go back out there and spend a whole day investigating, after they can do a little more clearing of some of the brush.”
The professors and students are assisting Alvin Frady Jr., a Jackson County man who is leading a volunteer effort to restore the long-abandoned Jackson County Cemetery. The group, including many who have relatives buried in the approximately 4-acre plot near N.C. Highway 116, is clearing years of brush from the cemetery and trying to locate the estimated 200 graves located there.
Long-range plans, pending approval and funding from Jackson County officials, include marking of the graves and construction of walking paths and a stone memorial. In the meantime, the Western researchers will continue to use the cemetery as a chance to test their geological and anthropological skills.
“We may not be able to locate all of the gravesites using this method, but we can certainly define some of the boundaries of the cemetery for these folks,” Young said.
Frady contacted Eastman at Western’s department of anthropology seeking scientific confirmation of some of his previous findings of probable gravesites using “dowsing” – an old mountain method of detecting the energy of underground objects through the use of sticks or metal rods that, according to tradition, pick up the vibrations of what lies beneath the earth. Eastman turned to Young and his ground-penetrating radar equipment.
“It was interesting to work side-by-side with the dowsers,” Young said.