Ground-penetrating radar used in effort to locate historic Cape Breton graveyard

Modern technology is helping unravel a 19th-century mystery in Cape Breton. Ground-penetrating radar is being used to pinpoint a graveyard from the early 1800s.

'I think it's important to remember where we come from in order to go into the future'

Maura McKeough of Parks Canada and Cyril Aker of the Atlantic Memorial Park Society. (Wendy Martin/CBC)

Modern technology is helping unravel a 19th-century mystery in Cape Breton.

The society that is planning a park in Sydney Mines is trying to pinpoint the location of a pioneer graveyard from the early 1800s.

Parks Canada personnel used ground-penetrating radar Thursday to narrow the search.

Maura McKeough, a cultural resource manager for Parks Canada in Cape Breton, wrestled the radar machine, which looks like a three-wheeled lawnmower, across bumpy terrain on the site of the proposed Atlantic Memorial Park.

She said radar registers variation in wavelengths that could signal the presence of graves.

The key, she said, is to look for what isn't there.

'Area of interest'

"Typically, what that would look like on the monitor, you'll see large voids," said McKeough,  "and we'll say it's a disturbance. I'm not going to say it's a grave. I'm just going to say there's a disturbance and it's a void, subterranean."

After about an hour of zigzagging across the likely location of the graveyard, McKeough said she'd found an "area of interest."

Parks Canada's Maura McKeough studies readings from the ground-penetrating radar. (Wendy Martin/CBC)

But to confirm it's a graveyard, she said an archeological dig would be needed. Barring that, she said historical records might confirm the location.

She said there is a chance the voids might not indicate a graveyard at all.

"Maybe it's an old garbage pit," she said. "Maybe it's a privy. That's why archeological and historical research is the next step."

Lots of history

Dale Romeo, the Atlantic Memorial Park Society's historian, said old maps and documents confirm there was a graveyard next to a log church — St. Peter's — that once stood on the site. It dates to 1824.

He said a picket fence surrounded the graveyard as recently as the Second World War when troops were stationed at the nearby command post.

The society hopes to find more records, and perhaps hear from people in the community who can help confirm the exact site and who is buried there.

"A lot of our pioneer families in Sydney Mines are buried in there," said Romeo, "and I think it's important to remember where we come from in order to go into the future."

Brian Ferguson, the society's planning director, said the aim is to fence off the graveyard once it has been located and incorporate it as part of the park.

"The more history that's here, the more interesting it will be for visitors," he said.

The proposal for Atlantic Memorial Park includes the restoration of the Chapel Point Battery and development of a war memorial and a visitor centre to recognize Canada's war efforts.

Read more stories from CBC Nova Scotia