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In the decades between the 1920s-30s when the plot stopped being used and the early 2000s when the previous signboard was erected, this area of the cemetery was nearly forgotten: the area became heavily overgrown and trees sprung up between headstones. Many of the headstones that were once present at the site are now gone: some were damaged; some stolen. Many graves were marked by simple fieldstones which have since fallen over and been further damaged by mowers

The end result is that while some headstones remain in good condition, most of the graves at the site are now unmarked, with only a slight depression or an ambiguous stone on the surface to suggest the presence of a grave. This poses serious questions regarding just how many people were buried here? And where? 

 

Archival research on the cemetery plot yielded names of 24 people buried --- far more names than there are headstones! To complicate matters, these 24 names are only a partial list -- while careful records were kept for the rest of the cemetery, this was not the case for the segregated section. Moreover, some portion of town records were lost in 2011 when the basement of the county office building flooded during Hurricane Irene. In the absence of clear records, archaeological methods have been able to offer some answers. 

Just how many burials are there? And Where?

EST members Ava Shinaver (left) and Jake Starman (right) with archaeologist Zach McKeeby (center)

Studying Cemeteries with Archaeology

Archaeology is most often associated with excavating (i.e. digging), but digging at cemeteries is highly inappropriate in nearly every case! Luckily, archaeologists also use a wide range of methodologies that allow them to learn about the past without ever touching a trowel. To answer these questions members of the Schoharie River Center's Environmental Study team worked with professional archaeologist Zach McKeeby to carry out a non-invasive archaeological survey of the cemetery plot. 

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 EST members used a type of magnetometer called a fluxgate gradiometer to "see" under the ground without excavating. Magnetometers contain delicate sensors that measure variations in the earth's magnetic field, which is affected by some types of buried objects, pits (including graves), and disruptions to the soil - what archaeologists call "features"

Magnetometry? How does it work?

The earth is surrounded by a magnetic field - that's why your compass always points north!

Some types of objects or features, such as iron objects and some types of rocks very subtly strengthen the the earth's field in their immediate vicinity (black smudges), while other types of features depress the earth's field (white smudges). Gradiometers help measure these positive and negative changes in thie field strength (a.k.a anomalies) caused by buried objects and place them within a 2D space - effectively creating a map of what's under the ground. 

Raw magnetometry data from Middleburgh Cemetery

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This image shows the processed magnetometry data with some of the identified graves highlighted (yellow boxes). In general, the topsoil is slightly more magnetic than the soil underneath; digging a pit (or a grave) through the topsoil churns the soil and bring up some of the less magnetic subsoil. As a result, in gradiometery data, grave shafts typically appear as slightly elongated, white (negative) anomalies that stand out against a slightly more magnetic background (grey) in the data.

southern half of survey area showing grave shafts (white, highlighted in yellow)

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Conservatively, the results of the archaeological survey indicate the presence of about 39 grave shafts at the plot. Considering that we have names for only 24 individuals buried, this would mean that no records exist for as many as 15 people, and possibly more. While Christian burials are often placed east-west, here they are placed roughly north-south, in line with the orientation of the cemetery plot. Many cluster together indicating possible family units, and some of the graves appear smaller and might belong to children -- which we know are present from the names and dates discovered during our archival research.

Archival research to uncover the names of additional people is ongoing. But while we may never know the names of some of them, and may not be able to attribute names to specific graves, we can at least give testament to their lives in the form of recognizing their final resting place. 

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