I had two main goals for the Boerner Family Cemetery Project (BFCP):
- To find the grave shafts without disturbing the graves themselves
- To provide a meaningful learning experience for the students in Intro to Archaeology
Finding the grave shafts without disturbing the graves is relatively easy. Beneath the dark topsoil (very dark and rich in this area which had not been farmed in over a hundred years), there is a substrate of yellowish clay. Once the topsoil is stripped away, we can see where the clay beneath has been dug through. Theoretically, at least, the outlines of the grave shafts will be obvious once they've been exposed.
Julius Boerner had originally laid aside half an acre of land for the cemetery. We do not have a map or overview photograph of the site from before its destruction, but family members could tell us that the graves were mostly in the southeastern quarter of the site. We have arial photographs showing the layout of the grove of trees which, again, tended toward the southeastern quarter.
We had a lot of graves to locate, and only limited time to spend in the field (in the end, we only have two weekends for this phase of the project), so we concentrated our efforts in the southeast. We placed three narrow trenches about 1.5 meters apart, running north-south across the cemetery. Since most Christian graves of that period were laid out east-west, these north-south running trenches had the best chance of intersecting the grave shafts.
The students mastered the use of shovels while digging the trenches nearly a meter (3 feet) below the current surface. The trenches bottomed out when they hit the clay. In the southern half of our trenches, the clay was consistent, a clean, unbroken surface of yellow. But to the north, it became mottled, broken up, mixed with the dark earth. Had we found the graves?
The patch of dark earth covered a wide area and had no clean or straight edges. My students found their feet shifting beneath them as they encountered small pockets of empty air beneath the soil. The final clue came from the many large roots that our shovels encountered. We hadn't found the graves, we'd found the area where the trees had grown through the clay to reach the water below.
So grave shafts weren't the only things to break through the clay. The trees had as well, especially the large cottonwood that had once stood at the heart of the cemetery. Tree roots and grave shafts look very different, but with only a narrow slice of the ground visible at the bottom of the trenches, it was hard to tell the sharper, more rectangular outlines of a grave shaft from the more shapeless outlines of a tree's root system. We had to connect the trenches, opening up a wider area so we could see the difference.
The last day of the excavation (everything happens on the last day of an excavation!), we opened up the area between the trenches, in the northern-most section of the area where we worked. This created a larger area where, visible against the mottled clay, we could see two grave shafts (neither of which was fully exposed by the excavations). Both appear to be large enough for for adult burials. However, further exposure may make this clearer.