Radar used to locate unmarked burials

From utility lines to unmarked graves, geologist Matthew Turner has spent more than two decades locating buried secrets around the world.

The Virginia native and vice president of GeoModel visited the Gallatin City Cemetery last week and spent three days using ground-penetrating radar to find unmarked graves in a historic African American section of the property.

“The transmitter sends a signal into the ground, which reflects off a hard surface and goes to a computer that shows an image,” Turner said describing the process. “Some of the graves are real hard to find. In other words, they’re basically gone.”

In all, 574 graves with and without markers were located in the 4-acre section of the cemetery, according to Mayor Paige Brown. The GPS coordinates of each location were then recorded by the city, which owns and manages the site.

“Everybody believes this is the African American section that does have slave graves and for the most part is unmarked,” Brown said. “To me, it’s an important property to the City of Gallatin and to the families of the people who are buried there. We have a responsibility to make sure that it survives and receives the proper attention that it deserves as a city cemetery.”

The grave identification project cost $11,600 and was funded by a $15,000 donation from Volunteer State Bank, according to data from the city’s finance department.

The money for the preservation work was given to the city after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) determined that the relocation of a 100-year-old house from the bank’s property at the corner of Nashville Pike and Tulip Poplar Drive last year had a “direct adverse effect on the building… which was eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places,” according to a memorandum of understanding obtained by the Gallatin News.

“It’s important to know where people are buried out there,” Sumner County Historian Kenneth C. Thomson Jr. said about the project. “They are from every walk of life – all kinds of age groups and people who died in epidemics and wars. It’s just a history of the town on a few acres that includes thousands of people.”

According to a study of the cemetery released by the Middle Tennessee State University Center for Historic Preservation last year, the oldest reports indicate that the first portion of land was donated by former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Felix Grundy in 1812. Irishman Neal McAuley, who died in 1818 while visiting Gallatin, is the earliest recorded person to be buried on the property.

Since that time, the cemetery has grown to include more than 8,000 interments. In addition to the African American section, it also includes a historic core; a rare Mexican-American War obelisk that stands 30 ft. tall; and the Confederate Circle, which commemorates Civil War soldiers from Sumner County.

"Overall, most of the tombstones in the vast city cemetery are intact and in safe condition," according to the report. "However, a large percentage of the tombstones in the oldest sections exhibit signs of damage...”

Last year, Brown announced the formation of a new committee to focus on ways to help preserve the cemetery while also focusing on ways to implement interpretation suggestions included in the MTSU Center of Historic Preservation report.

And while purchasing tombstones for each unmarked grave is unlikely, Brown said the committee is considering alternative ways to recognize those buried in the historic African American section of the cemetery.

“At the very least, we should do some kind of marker that acknowledges the history and significance of that area of the cemetery,” Brown said. “It tells the story of our history and it’s a beautiful cemetery with the potential to be far more beautiful than it currently is.”

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