High-tech devices help archeologists uncover Old Burying Ground's secrets

The Old Burying Ground in Halifax is undergoing its first complete archaeological survey, using high-tech equipment to map the cemetery above and below.

'We can visualize a lot that's in the ground without even touching it'

Archeologist Jonathan Fowler uses ground-penetrating radar to map two metres below the surface. (Stephanie Blanchet/CBC)

Researchers from Saint Mary's University's anthropology department are using high-tech equipment for the first time to better understand what lies beneath the Old Burying Ground in Halifax.

It's a multi-year project, funded in part by the Community Engaged Research Assistance Program at the university.

The team is using a magnetic susceptibility meter and ground-penetrating radar to map the site. Researchers want to see if there any tombstones or monuments buried under the surface after falling over.

The meter can read the upper metre of soil. It creates a small electromagnetic field to detect anything that might be buried underneath, such as buried stones or foundations.

Mapping the cemetery 

"The tool helps us detect any evidence of burning, which is sometimes useful in archeological applications, but we are experimenting with it here to see how well it detects burials," said Jonathan Fowler, an archeologist and professor at Saint Mary's.

Fowler says the ground-penetrating radar will also help map about two metres beneath the surface by shooting a radar wave into the ground and seeing if it will reflect off buried objects.

The magnetic susceptibility meter at work. (Stephanie Blanchet)

"Most of the time people think of archeology by imagining people digging holes, but nowadays modern archeology is very much about these pieces of high-tech equipment," Fowler said.

"We can visualize a lot that's in the ground without even touching it and we don't need to dig to learn a lot," he added.

'The wealthy have stones'

The Old Burying Ground is Halifax's oldest cemetery. It was established in 1749, the same year Halifax was founded.

By the time it closed, it contained the remains of more than 10,000 people. But only about 10 per cent of the graves were marked with a stone monument.

"Generally the wealthy have stones, most people weren't wealthy, so they wouldn't have stones and there would just be mass burials, stacking bodies on top of each other," said Tod Scott, a social worker and member of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society.

Upwards of 10,000 people are buried at the Old Burying Ground. But most graves didn't have a stone marker. (Stephanie Blanchet )

Many important figures from Nova Scotia's history are buried in the cemetery.

One is Robert Ross, who died during the War of 1812. His men torched the White House in 1814.

There are also about four Mi'kmaq people buried there, including a Mi'kmaw chief. Three of the British signatories to the treaty that ended the wars between the Mi'kmaq and the British are also buried in the cemetery.

"It's quite exciting to see how many more monuments and gravestones are actually in this grave site," Scott said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said three of the Mi'kmaw buried in the cemetery signed the treaties that ended the wars between the Mi'kmaq and the British. In fact, three of the British signatories are buried there.
    Oct 15, 2018 3:41 PM AT

About the Author

Aya Al-Hakim

Reporter

Aya Al-Hakim is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. She can be reached at aya.al-hakim@cbc.ca.