Category: Projects

Oakland Cemetery is a beautiful historic site located in the heart of Atlanta, Georgia. Its mausoleums and structures adorned with gardens and bird sanctuaries provide an enchanting green space where photo shoots, picnics, walks, and other events occur. Visitors come from near and far to enjoy this unique and serine ambiance with a vast history.

But who is buried at Oakland Cemetery? There are a number of famous people buried at Oakland including Ivan Allen, Jr., Joseph M. Brown, Martha Lumpkin Compton, Margaret Mitchell, and more. But what of those who are not famous? Many graves are now unmarked and there are fragmented records of the individuals who lie beneath. So, how do we honor and remember those who lay quietly underground with no marking, no record?

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In an attempt to bring to light where and how many individuals might be buried without markers, Bigman Geophysical, LLC was hired by the Historic Oakland Foundation to survey the African American section of the cemetery. During the time spent at Oakland, Bigman Geophysical located 800+ possible unmarked graves using noninvasive geophysical technology known as ground penetrating radar (GPR).

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GPR sends electromagnetic pulses into the ground which reflect back to the GPR console when it comes across changes within the subsurface such disturbed soil versus compact soil. Bigman Geophysical flagged these potential unmarked graves and recorded GPS coordinates for them so that the Historic Oakland Foundation can preserve and plan for the future. The final resting places of these people can now remain undisturbed during any refurbishments and they can be honored and remembered as visitors walk through the cemetery.

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

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How do scent smelling dogs measure up to high tech imaging equipment when searching for 200 year old burials? Very well, actually! On January 25, 2016 we followed up a cadaver dog search with a GPR survey of Kettle Creek Battlefield located in Washington, GA. This was the site of a quick, but brutal Revolutionary War battle that took the lives of approximately 80 British and 7 or 8 American soldiers. One idea was that the British were buried in a mass grave, possibly on the southern side of War Hill (the location of the most intense fighting). The cadaver dogs located an area with human remains scent and this was one of the targets that we investigated with GPR. The GPR data, however, indicates that there may only be a single clandestine grave at this spot. There is no indication of a large pit.
During the first phase of this investigation, the dogs also located numerous targets in the battlefield itself. The GPR data also support most of these as probable graves. In every case where a GPR reflection indicative of a possible grave was recorded, the location was slightly uphill from the where the dogs hinted. This is expected since the decomposing residue will travel through the subsurface after the burial is interred.

The power of the Kettle Creek Battlefield study is the high correlation of Human Remains Detection dog targets with GPR reflections of probable burials. This method allowed the project to cover a large area quickly with the dogs from K9 Search & Rescue Specialists, Inc. to identify possible targets, and then evaluate those targets with non-invasive subsurface imaging. The small GPR reflection on the southern side of War Hill coupled with the 6 targets identified in the battlefield (5 supported by the GPR) also might indicate that no mass grave exists. The only way to figure this out would be a full coverage investigation with the dogs, geophysics, and some minimal testing. Thank you to the Kettle Creek Battlefield Association for supporting the project and preserving public history. Stay tuned…

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Percentage of targets located by HRD dogs that were also located with GPR