Plotting new ground
Cemetery uses radar in effort to go digital

GRAYSON - Those hundreds of little red flags stuck in the ground at the Chestnut Grove Baptist Church cemetery aren't there to specify underground pipes or utility gas lines. But they are there to signify underground, potentially human remains.

And according to the church's administrator Jim Saunders, only a few months ago nobody even knew anything was there.

"We have no idea if there is someone there or not," Saunders said of what lies beneath the flags. "But the ground-penetrating radar technology we used does tell us that there are land disturbances beneath there."

And the logic goes that if the land was previously disturbed, there's a good chance it was to bury a coffin.

According to Saunders, the flags and what might lie beneath them came about as the result of a $12,000 project the church has undertaken that will eventually put its 156-year-old cemetery - the oldest church cemetery in Gwinnett - online and searchable on the Web.

To accurately measure and plot each section of the cemetery to accomplish this feat, the church recently employed ground penetrating radar technology to profile what remains below the earth's surface. Saunders said that while the technology can't say with 100 percent certainty there is a body beneath the surface, what it can do is say there is an "anomaly" in the Earth beneath the surface, and that means a body might be there. Saunders said the recent findings were the result of two days worth of using the technology on site and added that the findings were pretty remarkable in that they discovered many anomalies previously unknown.

"We've located 124 unknown, unmarked graves and we also discovered 60 potential grave sites we could use for burial," Saunders said. "We'll eventually go to the state to get approval for using the 60 sites and if we can recoup those, that's money that wasn't there before."

Saunders said the idea to map and eventually improve the cemetery's aesthetics was the result of too many people calling in with burial plot questions and the church having a "'We can't really help you' mentality." Saunders said this was mainly due to the fact that poor records - sometimes sketched on cardboard - existed prior to 1981. He said now that the ground-penetrating radar has been used, retired Gwinnett County development inspector and church member Jim Maxwell will be using the findings and existing data to get all the burial info recorded so that eventually the project can be 100 percent digitized and accessible for someone who can't visit the cemetery personally.

Because cemeteries are sacred ground, Saunders also pointed out that no existing grave plots or family plots were disturbed or checked for unknown burials while using the radar technology.

Maxwell said some of the burial plots date back to the Civil War era.

"Some of the tombstones are so old you can hardly read the numberings and markings," he said.