Arnold AFB cemeteries receive in-depth look through survey project

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

Much mystery surrounds the eight cemeteries contained within the 40,000 sprawling acres of Arnold Air Force Base.

For years, natural and cultural resources personnel at Arnold were left with the same questions concerning these graveyards:

“How old are they?”

“How many are interred within each?”

“Are there any unmarked plots?”

The search for answers began in early October with the initiation of a comprehensive cemetery survey.

Through this undertaking, a complete inventory of the cemeteries will be compiled. This will assist Arnold team members in the management, monitoring and preservation of the sites.

The cemeteries located on Arnold Air Force Base are: Anderson Cemetery, Chapel Hill Cemetery, Elder-Fagg Cemetery, Fieldstone Cemetery, Hickerson Cemetery, Huffar Cemetery, Price-Essmann Cemetery and Rutherford-Shipley Cemetery.

Information recorded at each of the cemeteries includes the number of graves, details present on the tombstones, and the conformation of individual gravesites and styles of tombstones. Additionally, an analysis of the condition of each gravesite and cemetery, as well as notation of any vandalism, erosion and other damage or changes, was included in the survey.

The arrangement of gravesites in each of the cemeteries was also mapped as part of the effort.

Prior to the survey, Arnold personnel possessed a limited knowledge of the burial grounds, aware only of their locations and the rough dimensions of each.

“We’ve had archaeological projects in the past that have done the documentation showing the cemeteries are here and sort of a general size and that type of thing, but it’s all been very general and not a lot of specific information is known,” said base archaeologist Shawn Chapman.

Staff from WSP, an engineering, management and consulting company commissioned by Arnold to complete the survey, conducted fieldwork in each of the cemeteries, documenting information through both narrative and photographic means. This was not the first survey foray for WSP at Arnold. In fact, one of the cemeteries located on Arnold property was discovered in the late 2000s during work performed by the firm.

Along with gathering information on the number of gravesites and the particulars of each, WSP personnel also explored each cemetery to locate potential unmarked graves.

To unearth this information, WSP personnel utilized both an electric resistivity meter and ground-penetrating radar, or GPR. The resistivity meter consists of probes inserted into the ground. During the meticulous survey, rows of each cemetery were probed at intervals of only a few inches. Electricity emanates from these probes and flows through the ground. The meter measures the electrical resistance of the soil, mapping the flow patterns it detects. Data collected can further be used to produce a grayscale map depicting what lies beneath the surface of the cemeteries.

This work was followed by the GPR examination. Resembling a lawnmower, this device was pushed across each graveyard, emitting radar pulses along the way. The device detects objects underneath the surface by measuring how long it takes for the transmitted pulses to “bounce” back to the GPR. Use of these tools allows archaeologists to see under the ground surface in a general way without having to dig or disturb the graves.

Steve Martin, a WSP archaeologist who specializes in geophysics, said each of these nondestructive methods displays different characteristics, adding a multi-technique approach ensures a more thorough analysis of each cemetery.

“It’s kind of looking at it with different lenses, and sometimes things will show really well in one and not show up well in another set of data,” he said.

The data collected through these techniques will not only be compared and contrasted but also used for validation if both detect the same peculiarity.

“If both techniques show the same anomaly, then there’s likely something there,” Martin said. “If one technique shows something that the other doesn’t, often you can figure out why or what’s going on there. The more data, the better.”

The information-gathering portion of the project was set to be finished by the end of November. With their fieldwork complete, WSP staff will now take the data and documentation amassed and begin producing a broad report to serve as a complete inventory of the gravesites, including any unmarked graves found, in the eight cemeteries located within the boundaries of Arnold AFB.

Once complete, this report will be shared with Arnold personnel, providing them with an accurate gravesite database to bolster future cemetery management and maintenance. The findings will also be shared with the public.

“When we have that report, it will also have a good sort of public outreach benefit, as well, from the project for local historical societies and genealogical societies,” Chapman said.

Chapman said the completion of the cemetery survey ensures Arnold is in compliance with local, state and federal laws.

“As part of being caretakers of the 40,000 acres, there are a lot of requirements that fall outside of that strict research and testing mission,” Chapman said. “We’re also responsible for caretaking of the property and everything that is on it which involves all of the natural resources and cultural resources. This is part of our stewardship of doing that.”

Dr. Amy Turner, National Environmental Policy Act, natural and cultural resources planner at Arnold, added that not only is the base meeting its regulatory responsibility through the gravesite inventory, but the effort will also aid in the preservation of cultural and historic resources. She said the project will prevent the sites from being impacted by the work that goes on at Arnold, assuring the descendants of those buried within that these artifacts of family history will remain protected for generations to come.

In that regard, Turner said surveying the cemeteries was simply the right thing to do.

“The gravesites that WSP potentially identified that we didn’t know were here before the survey, that’s an opportunity to ensure that we don’t impact them in the future,” she said.