Locating lost graves with subsurface imaging

By on 1 May, 2019

GPR unit and RTK-GPS equipment used for the Lake Condah Mission Cemetery survey. Photo shows the western boundary of the Lake Condah Mission Cemetery Site looking north. Image: supplied.

New archaeological technology has been used to locate unmarked graves, assisting community groups to manage their cultural heritage and map unmarked graves in burial plots.

The Flinders University research group, led by professor Ian Moffat, has been using GPS positioning and ground penetrating radar (GPR) as a non-invasive location technique for unmarked graves within the Lake Condah Mission Cemetery in western Victoria.

The cemetery was established in 1869 and is an important site for the Gunditjmara community, thought to contain more than 100 graves — of which only 26 are marked.

Dr. Moffat said that this was a huge issue, especially for rural communities.

“Many Australian Indigenous communities are anxious not to disturb graves, so this survey provides useful information to assist the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Corporation in planning future burials within this cemetery by identifying large areas which are free of graves,” he said.

The GPR survey determined an additional 14 probable unmarked graves and 49 other areas that may contain one or more unmarked burial sites.

“The great leap forward with this particular study was the close partnership between the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Corporation and the researchers to achieve such a positive outcome,” Dr. Moffat said.

The team said that extensive subsurface disturbance at the Lake Condah Mission Cemetery site made interpretation of the GPR data difficult, but areas with no unmarked graves could still be delineated.

Damein Bell, CEO of Gunditj Mirring said: “Our Elders informed the researchers of their knowledge of where the known graves were and our community now have marked the unknown gravesites of our ancestors.”

The project’s results were published by the Journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria, in a paper titled  “Ground penetrating radar investigations at the Lake Condah Mission Cemetery: locating unmarked graves in areas with extensive subsurface disturbance”, by Ian Moffat, Julia Garnaut, Celeste Jordan, Anthea Vella, Marian Bailey and Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Corporation.

Dr. Moffat said that the technique of using GPR and GPS readings will have wider application across pioneer and heritage sites throughout Australia. The team has plans to survey cemeteries at Berri, Kingscote and Lake Wangary in the near future.

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