Originally created 07/31/05

As development booms, risk to gravesites looms



ATLANTA - For all the technological advances in recent years, one of the most reliable ways of finding unmarked graves remains little more than a metal stick.

It looks like a thin, 4-foot-long pogo stick without the spring. At one end is a pointed tip, a little bit wider than the rest of the pole; at the other end is a handle that hits the main pole at a right angle.

To find a grave, someone would take the pole and try to push it into the ground. Unless the dirt has been dug up and then used to fill or refill a hole, the pole won't go very far.

Jeff Gardner, a vice president for Brockington and Associates - an archaeological company based in Norcross, Ga. - sometimes lets clients feel the difference for themselves. Those clients are usually developers who have happened across what they believe is a cemetery.

In Georgia, as development booms, cemeteries face increasing danger of being disturbed. But most of those involved in preserving the gravesites agree that builders generally are trying to follow the law.

"The last thing a developer wants is to get bad press," said Christine Neal, archaeology program coordinator for the Georgia Historic Preservation Division.

And while most states have laws dictating how to identify and, if necessary, move a cemetery, there might be no way to know whether all developers are following the law all the time.

The danger

Although many preservationists have heard horror stories, it's hard to confirm that a cemetery has been destroyed or moved.

With increasing mobility and the migration to suburbs taking hold nationwide over the past few decades, once-isolated areas are now being eyed as sources of multimillion-dollar business and residential enterprises.

Sometimes, those untouched lands also hold the sacred sites of those who passed away long ago, from the graves of 18th and 19th century farmers to the burial grounds of Native Americans.

And in states where the rate of growth is fast - Georgia regularly ranks as one of the fastest-growing in the nation - new subdivisions and businesses often run up against burial grounds long forgotten or abandoned.

Although Atlanta and other urban areas are more acutely affected than rural counties, Ms. Neal said the problems aren't confined to large cities.

Michael Trinkley, who works with the South Carolina-based Chicora Foundation, said booming business along his state's coast is bringing concerns about development to the forefront.

Laws vary from state to state. Georgia requires archaeologists to be called out if a cemetery is found and requires the professional to prepare a report before the graves can be moved. Other states have no such requirement.

The digging

Under Georgia law, once a developer believes there is a cemetery on the land, it is his duty to call in an archaeologist to survey the land and find out how many graves are there - and where they're located.

That's where people like Mr. Gardner come in. He says developers want to avoid the fines or even jail time that could result from breaking the law.

"I think most of them know the kind of trouble they can get into if they don't follow through," he said.

When they go to a site, Mr. Gardner and his colleagues look for the tell-tale signs of a cemetery: Depressions in the ground, often with field stones at either end; trees or flowers that were often used in cemeteries but otherwise would be out of place; and, of course, more obvious signs such as headstones.

Being in the business can lead to arcane knowledge. Because Christian tradition holds that people will rise from the dead facing the east at the end of time, graves are often oriented so the deceased's feet face east.

So if the depressions in the ground run side by side, from north to south, it's a good bet there's a cemetery there.

But even cemeteries with markers aren't easily surveyed.

"Even in those situations, you don't know every single grave is marked," Mr. Gardner said.

That's where the metal pole comes in.

There are also high-tech methods, such as a radar that can be rolled along the ground, but those often run into trouble when the ground isn't flat. In those cases, the metal stick is the best way to tell.

Eventually, a decision has to be made on whether a cemetery should be moved. Mr. Gardner said his company usually recommends against it.

"One of my arguments for leaving it in place is (it's) just really bad PR," he said.

But that doesn't stop all builders from trying to relocate the graves.

"Cemeteries, unfortunately, are generally on prime locations for development," Mr. Gardner said.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.