Probing the past at St. Luke’s

Published 1:22 pm Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Radar unit used to identify scope of old cemetery

By Matt Leonard

Staff Writer

“Whoa, that’s an interesting data point,” said Malcolm LeCompte as he pushed a rolling radar device over three graves, the screen in front of him showed three white parabolas to correspond with each coffin or body underneath him.

LeCompte and his colleague Clay Swindell were at Historic St. Luke’s church Thursday, gathering data to make a map of the subterranean surroundings of the church.

The graves that caused the machine to light up were for Nicholas Hart, Nancy Hart and one simply marked as “mother.” But the researchers were also on the lookout for signs of unmarked graves, the remnants of old building foundations and other objects not visible from the surface. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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The technology they used is called a ground penetrating radar. It uses radio signals, not unlike a cell phone uses to communicate with a tower, to measure different densities under the ground. The screen shows denser surfaces as lighter colors — white, light gray — and less dense material are black or dark gray.

Swindell said the machine can see about one meter below the surface.

The radar is pushed by LeCompte in lines away and then back toward the church structure. Each line is saved as a separate file to be stitched together later using computer software. This can be used to create both a two-dimensional and a three dimensional map of the area.

Swindell took notes of what line they were on and any obstructions that caused them to be unable to measure certain areas. So when there is a spot with missing data on the map, future researchers will know it is because of a bush or a headstone.

Last week, the two researchers from Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina (LeCompte is a retired professor and Swindell is a research associate at the school) gathered data for a 1,700 square-foot area around the church, the inside of the church and another area in the grave yard.

The two will then compile their findings into a report that they’ll give to Historic St. Luke’s. Swindell said he’d not sure how long it will take to complete the report, saying it depends on the data they gather.

Whatever they find, that won’t be the end of the research.

“It’s nice to have the two-dimensional images that these things create,” Swindell said, “but at some point you have to go do what we call ground truthing.”

That means, at some point, ground will have to be broken; but with this map, future researchers won’t be going in blind. The map and corresponding report will give researchers an idea of where to look.

He said something that looks interesting on the map could end up being an abnormally dense patch of soil, but they won’t know until someone starts digging.

Historic St. Luke’s decided to have this report done after archaeologists in 2011 and 2012 found what they thought could be remains that they thought “would warrant further research.” The findings are being funded by the Isle of Wight County Museum Foundation in what the Foundation and St. Luke’s plan to become a joint study and display highlighting the earliest days of St. Luke’s. The estimated cost of the preliminary work is $3,800.

Todd Ballance, the executive director of Historic St. Luke’s, said he’s not sure when that will happen. The report will be taken to the church’s board of directors, which will later make the decision.

Ballance said doing archeological research can be expensive, but given the church’s proximity to Jamestown and other important historical sites, there are plenty of private firms they can go to for future digging.

“We’re going to have to think about what our next step is going to be,” Ballance said.

(The publisher of this newspaper sits on the St. Luke’s board. His wife is president of the Isle of Wight County Museum Foundation.)  {/mprestriction}