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201 Amherst Avenue (through College Town Park (public park) or 4243 Oxford Avenue


The Key to Understanding
Highland Cemetery

Highland Cemetery’s Marker Recovery Project

Any understanding of an historic cemetery has to involve the disciplines of anthropology, geology and archaeology. Literally, there are no two cemeteries alike and an understanding of what should be on a burial site is imperative before any restoration work begins. Research would include genealogy of documented burials and a general history of the area to establish timeframes of activity (such as older or newer sections).


Every group of people is going to develop burial traditions, styles and techniques unique to that group – whether for immediate or extended family, neighborhood or community. Something that ties them together, usually profession (farming, manufacturing, etc.), religion (Jewish, Protestant, etc.) or even ethnicity (African-American, Latin-American, etc.) compels them to develop practices that give them a collective identity. This especially applies to cemeteries, our last expression of “who we are.” One of the strongest common denominators of human burial practice is religion. Though exceptions are always possible, practices of orientation (East facing) or grouping (family plots) as well as location (placement among relatives) are important clues in rediscovering individual burials.


Of equal import is the geology of a burying ground. The type of ground often dictates the manner of burial. Where the ground is very rocky, the water table too high or, otherwise impenetrable, the tendency is to build aboveground structures such as mausoleums. Where the soil is easier to work, in-ground burial is simpler and generally preferred. Understanding the geology of the soil provides an important reference or control when looking for “disturbances” or deviations from normal that will likely suggest a burial.


Finally, there comes a point when an excavation may be necessary in order to learn more or retrieve objects necessary to restore graves. It is “macabre” to many people to even think of digging in a graveyard but it is sometimes warranted to answer important research questions. Certainly, this should not be done without applicable permits and permissions from any and all authorities. Very often, state permits require a registered professional archaeologist for this purpose. Regardless, a qualified archaeologist should be consulted if not in charge of any excavation. Most often, this would be to recover broken tablet markers that have sunk just below the ground surface. Restoring a grave marker is the single most important restoration to any gravesite. Other, more invasive excavations may be justified in order to recover fragments of collapsed aboveground structures. Whatever the purpose of an excavation, it is extremely important to be able to recognize and avoid disturbing any evidence of burial.

Ground-Penetrating Radar

One of the first procedures done to further understand Highland Cemetery was a ground-penetrating radar scan done in 2003 by a team under Old Miss archaeologist, Jay Johnson. The results were not very definitive in locating marker fragments or “shallow targets.” But several suspected burials and shallow targets were identified and continue to guide our work today.

Systematic Probe

Due to the limited data derived from the GPR scan, the next least-invasive procedure was to do a systematic probe of the cemetery. This decidedly low-tech procedure involves the use a steel rod or probe pushed by hand into the ground with various resistances used to classify “contacts” such as brick, marble, iron or even tree roots. Our team first surveyed the cemetery and established a grid system by inserting galvanized nails at points along lines every four meters and every meter along each of the lines. We then constructed a two-meter square PVC frame with string lines woven into it every 20 centimeters vertically and horizontally. This grid template was then placed so that survey points would align with its corners.
Each grid probe survey involved pressing down on the probe every 20 cm in a crisscross fashion until all 120 points were investigated. A voice recorder was used to allow the prober to record his findings and move quickly and efficiently. It is a demanding process that allowed only four or five grids per session before mental as well as physical fatigue set in. After each session, the recording was played back and the data is recorded to a physical grid sheet. From there, the sheet was scanned as an image file and combined with other sheets to generate a composite image file of the contacts within the entire cemetery.
The geology of Highland Cemetery lent itself quite well to our goals as we soon discovered, due to the area’s alluvial nature, there was a clay layer that existed between 40 and 70 cm below the surface. Most of the burials had to penetrate this “bedrock” in order to adequately place the body below ground. Whenever the probe easily went into the ground to its end, one meter, it was referred to as “an infinity hit.” That is, the probe encountered little or no resistance indicating that the soil was disturbed and that the clay layer was “missing.” Such a lack of resistance was interpreted to likely indicate a burial shaft. Looking at the complete probe data image file, it was casually interpreted that at least 180 burial shafts were located within the current boundaries of the cemetery. Furthermore, many inferences could be made as to the various plots of concentrated burial shafts that probably will coorelate to families or other groups such as a suspected “Protestant section” of the so-called “Catholic cemetery.”
Two other techniques were used in Highland Cemetery without success. The first was a simple resistivity sampling, where an electric current is sent out and received to measure resistance, much like the manual probe. The second was actual soil core sampling where tubes were inserted into the ground to retrieve soil samples that would show discoloration or other characteristics that might identify burials.


At this point, we begin to analyze the probe data and begin locating the best areas for further investigation by excavation. Our largest and most interesting feature was an apparent very high concentration of brick and/or marble returns at a very shallow depth. We suspected that it could be a collapsed aboveground brick tomb or a brick cover for one or more closely located in-ground burials. We began our excavation in earnest on a March day in 2011 and took nearly a year of Sunday afternoon sessions, about twice a month before we completely exposed the feature and removed a slice of it for careful analysis. It turned out to be little more than a debris pile of brick fragments mixed with some isolated bone material (some human, some bovine!). It appeared that at various times of the cemetery’s life, people would rework bricks by collecting them from areas and cleaning them of mortar in order to reuse them for new construction. This was evident by the fact that not a single complete brick was found in the entire feature. Over the years, families could have scavenged bricks from collapsed structures and re-used them for new structures. This may have also applied to well-meaning restorations efforts so that very little context, if any could be derived from the cemetery’s most common construction material.
The second and third excavations yielded the same, though smaller area, results: little more than brick fragments apparently dumped in depression areas.
Finally, we chose a site where an actual marker was found. Incredibly, it was not an historic marker but a modern “memorial” marker produced for a documented burial in the area. It had been placed there in the 1970’s and sunk several inches below the surface. A testament to how quickly these heavy objects disappear! It wasn’t an historic object but we were making progress.
The next (and current) excavation was the result of actually discovering a stone feature at the surface. We began to excavate around this feature in September 2013 and were very excited to find that it was a substantial historic tablet marker fragment. Even with the close 20 cm spacing of our probe data collection, it showed up as only two adjacent 1 cm contacts. This find gives us a better idea of what to look for in the probe data as we search for more fragments like this!

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