A ground-penetrating radar survey of Hillsborough’s Old Town Cemetery suggests it may contain nearly 100 unmarked and previously unrecorded graves.
New South Associates Inc. conducted a two-day survey of an open grassy area and parts of the Heartt and Hooper family areas in August. Its findings and information from a 1966 cemetery map were combined to produce a preliminary report for the Hillsborough Cemetery Committee’s most recent meeting.
Committee Chairman Ken Ostrand, an archaeologist, suggested the survey. The data will be used to more precisely locate possible graves and place markers at possible gravesites, as was done previously in the Margaret Lane Cemetery.
The survey was done with a three-wheeled cart rolled over anomalies in the soil that could indicate the presence of graves. Equipment on the cart sends radar energy into the ground and records information about the energy bouncing back from the soil and objects in it.
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Different types of material return different characteristics. Depending on the types of materials used in a burial — a cloth shroud or pine coffin versus a lead coffin or burial vault for example — burials can have different characteristics in the data.
“Ground-penetrating radar can even detect where a body had lain, even when no physical remains are present,” Ostrand said in a news release. Because of this, the study erred on the side of caution and may have recorded some locations as possible graves where none existed.
The surveyed sections of the cemetery have 31 possible graves marked with a headstone or ledger or plotted on the 1966 map. The radar survey identified an additional 94 possible graves with no surface indications.
The Old Town Cemetery at North Churton and West Tryon streets is one of the oldest public burial grounds in North Carolina. Records date to 1757, but local lore says the field had been used as an informal graveyard before that, according to the release.
It is likely that grave markers have deteriorated or been removed since the cemetery’s founding. The eastern half, which was the focus of the survey, was the original burial ground and has only a few scattered markers. The more crowded western half consists of 11 private cemeteries and over 100 individual tombs.
The Hillsborough Cemetery Committee was recognized earlier in the year with a Hillsborough Historic District Commission Preservation Award for Volunteerism for organizing cleanup days at the Old Town Cemetery.