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Dickinson Research Leads to Historic Cemetery Receiving Solar 'Tombstones'

Angelo Tarzona

Angelo Tarzona '21 surveys the cemetery. Photo courtesy of Jorden Hayes.

Effort to mark unmarked graves began three years ago

by Tony Moore

A few miles south of Dickinson's campus lies the historic site of the Mount Tabor AME Church. Its cemetery is full, as it turns out, of unmarked graves dating to the Civil War. So back in 2018—working with the Cumberland County Historical Society, the Mt. Tabor Preservation Project and her students—Professor of Earth Sciences Jorden Hayes undertook a unique research project at the site, one deploying modern tech to unearth a nearly forgotten past.

"I am incredibly proud of the hard work and research my students have done to assist with the preservation of this historic site," says Hayes. "Our small part of this project exemplifies something we do really well at Dickinson—that is, providing a useful education that expands knowledge and inspires action."

Angelo Tarzona and volunteers

Photo courtesy of Jorden Hayes.

Using ground-penetrating radar, the researchers located graves scattered unmarked across the cemetery, and in 2020, Angelo Tarzona ’21 (earth sciences) took on the project as his senior thesis. For a year, he gathered data at the site, bouncing radio waves off underground objects to map the locations of the unmarked graves.

gravesites lit up

At night, solar markers light up to serve as "tombstones" for the rediscovered graves.

Earlier this month, the project culminated in the group using high-precision GPS instruments to mark the exact location of the graves and install solar lights to mark them permanently, the lights serving as illuminated headstones, beacons ensuring that the past isn't left behind.

"The legacy of persons buried at this historic cemetery is very much alive in the descendants and community—a legacy of resilience, compassion and generosity," says Hayes. "This work is evidence that even scientists have a role to play in elevating the voices of marginalized groups and helping to preserve their important history."

video by Joe O'Neill

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Published April 13, 2021