Radar probes Waterford cemetery's depths

Debbie Surabian, left, and Jim Doolittle, both with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, use a ground-penetrating radar system Thursday at West Neck Cemetery in Waterford as they search for unmarked graves.
Debbie Surabian, left, and Jim Doolittle, both with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, use a ground-penetrating radar system Thursday at West Neck Cemetery in Waterford as they search for unmarked graves. Tim Martin/The Day Buy Photo

Waterford - The West Neck Cemetery was founded in the 1850s and, despite meticulous record-keeping, at some point over the last 160 years it became unclear who - and exactly where - everyone was buried.

That changed Thursday, when soil scientists used some intriguing technology in hopes of offering a few answers to the local cemetery's historical mysteries.

The scientists used ground-penetrating radar to look at several sites throughout the cemetery on Great Neck Road. The radar allowed them to look several feet beneath the surface; in one plot, they found evidence of at least three unmarked graves.

The expedition was the latest effort by the West Neck Cemetery Association to uncover new space in the 1 acre cemetery. Members of the association were concerned with the prospect of digging new graves in areas where unmarked graves may be located.

"It's a special family interest to find out who all these people are," said John Morgan, the association secretary/treasurer, who has five generations of family members buried in the cemetery. "Before you dig, you want that information."

The cemetery sits just north of the Seventh Day Baptist Church. It was formed when the "Old Rogers Cemetery" at Great Neck and Shore roads became full.

Morgan said the cemetery has records of 474 burials. Between a dozen and 20 other burials in its records have no corresponding headstones. The cemetery association had an idea of where most people were located, but Morgan said the radar was a tool they could employ to be more certain.

Debbie Surabian and Jim Doolittle of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service operated the radar. Nicholas Bellantoni, state archaeologist, and Dan Cruson, president of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut, were also on hand Thursday.

When Surabian and Doolittle ran across what appeared to be an unmarked grave, the radar would show a gray hyperbola - a curve - indicating the energy given off by possible human remains.

The scientists used little red flags to mark the ground where they believe are unmarked graves, although Doolittle was quick to say the process was an inexact science.

"With time, everything decays, but that doesn't mean nothing is there," Doolittle said. "With 100 years it gets really tough. But you want to know what's out there."

The cemetery association estimated that space exists in the cemetery for 145 more single spaces. Morgan said the expedition to find unmarked graves will give local families more room to bury their loved ones.

"People want plots for other family members," Morgan said. "Until we did this, we had to say no."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

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