The Headstone and Graves

headstone-marker2Almost a year after moving into Meredith House, one of our neighbors casually mentioned a small headstone that bordered our two properties.  Curious, we wandered up a small knoll up from our mailbox.  Enclosed within a small two-foot high wrought-iron fence was a headstone.
headstone-marker1Upon closer inspection, the initials “E.A.” were clearly visible on the stone.   The neighbor pondered if it was someone’s beloved pet.  With a mix of trepidation and excitement, we emailed Georgia’s official archaeologist seeking clarification.

Rachel Black, Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Cemetery Archaeologist, responded to a 2011 inquiry:  “From the pictures, the stone looks like a classic example of a fieldstone type grave marker. These types of stones were common in early, rural cemeteries and could date as far back as the mid 1800s. It’s really hard to tell. It may be a child’s grave that predates the 1920s owners. There are many old, small cemeteries and graves in your area of town since, prior to the turn of the century, that area was farmland. Buckhead just grew up around these graves and now many can be found tucked away in side yards and unimproved lots. The metal fencing looks like a later addition.”

The former residents were contacted and no knowledge of the grave and fence were known.  A title search of individuals going back to the 1800s was conducted and no land owner was identified with an “A” as the first initial of the last name.  A large ground-penetrating radar company was emailed without response.  The marked but anonymous grave sat (as it had for over a hundred years) without further investigation until 2014.

In May 2014, a neighborhood newspaper called the Buckhead Reporter published an article about 60 unmarked graves being “discovered” on Chastain Park’s golf course.  Apparently, Fulton County’s Almshouse buried many of their dead down the hill on what is today part of the golf course.

We contacted the owner of this ground penetrating radar company.  Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services wrote back with an interest in going over the area for a small fee.  He recommended clearing the area of debris and undergrowth all around the grave site.  He indicated the clearer the area the better the scan.

In July 2014, Len Strozier arrived with his ground penetrating radar.  He surveyed the area.

Len Strozier was very knowledgable about the radar and interment practices.  He concurred with Rachel Black’s dating of mid-1800s.  He debunked the pet theory.  Based on his examination of the headstone and estimated age, someone spent the better part of a day carving the initials in the stone.  As much as humans love their pets, this would have been an impractical waste of time in the mid-19th Century.  He also explained that where there was one grave – – there were usually more.  Although only one headstone was visible, the practice of burying others nearby was common.

So, how does ground penetrating radar work?  The radar looks at differences in the soil below.  These differences give different signals to Len Strozier, who is well-versed in trying to interpret them.  Some signals indicate water.  Some signals are metal.  Other signals are air gaps beneath the soil.

In our case, Len Strozier is looking for air gaps.  Most rural burials in the mid-1800s were completed without embalming, without vaults, or (oftentimes) without coffins.  Without these modern practices, humans return to dust within about seventy-five years.  Ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust.  What remains are non-organic accoutrements, such as belt buckles or other pieces of metal.  An air pocket exists in the space the person once occupied.  This air pocket is Len Strozier’s evidence of a grave.

The air gaps are also not necessarily the proverbial ‘six feet under.’  Most graves are not that deep.  Six feet is very deep.  The effort into a hand-dug grave six feet deep is impractical.  Len Strozier talked about some modern, commercial interments being only a few feet deep.  The grave-digger works often at night with little oversight.  Few cemetery sexton’s pulled out the measuring tape to check proper depths.  Thus, there are more shallow graves than we think.

Len Strozier started with the area around the headstone.  He confirmed with 95% accuracy a burial and estimated it to be a child.  Two other earthen indentions existed nearby.  He scanned both.  As he scanned (and rescanned), he placed small red flags in the ground.  He felt certain one other area was a human grave.  He felt less confident (but still more-likely-then not) that another area was yet another grave.

So, what started as a homeowner’s curious investigation into a headstone yielded a three-grave cemetery.  Len Strozier is also a Baptist minister.  This work is part of his mission.  He artfully discussed the soil as sacred ground.

Although we came no closer to discovering WHO was buried at bottom of our driveway, we came to appreciate that someone’s loved ones WERE carefully laid to peacefully rest over 150 years ago for all eternity.

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