Archaeologists Get Bird's-Eye View of Dozens of Nameless Graves Discovered at UVa

By: Evanne Armour Email
By: Evanne Armour Email

December 4, 2012

Archaeologists are getting a new perspective of the abandoned gravesite near UVa.'s University Cemetery. Researchers are looking to the skies to learn more about what's hidden underground.

A camera strapped to a balloon snapped hundreds of aerial photos of the land Tuesday morning.

"We just fly it up, take a picture every two seconds and then sort through the pictures," said Chris Gist, a GIS Specialist in the Scholars' Lab at Alderman Library. "It gives us an advantage that we can get up in height over the site without destroying it."

The area is believed to be the final resting place of dozens of enslaved African-Americans, dating back to the 1800's, according to Benjamin Ford, principal investigator of Rivanna Archaeological Services.

"It's hard for us to imagine if there were white individuals buried here that there would not be an enclosure, there would not be headstones and markers," said Ford.

Ford said it is not unusual to find a stray burial site outside of an old cemetery. He said what was surprising was the number of people discovered laid to rest in the area.

"As the week to week, day to day, has progressed, that total has climbed," Ford said. "We're at a point now where we can say with a pretty good degree of confidence that we have defined the burial area."

The aerial images will provide some insight into the 67 nameless graves somewhat scattered about the space, a stark contrast to the orderly plots lining the land in University Cemetery just feet away.

"We also want to know the larger questions of why this cemetery is here, who this population is and if we can try and identify individuals who may be buried here," said Ford.

There are no plans to exhume any of the bodies. Instead, researchers will continue digging deeper into the history of the population by studying it from the surface, and now, by air.

The project began in the spring. Ford said archaeologists expect to have a draft of their findings to the university by mid-January. The university has appointed a committee to recommend ways to appropriately document and memorialize the site.


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