How we dispose of and commemorate our dead is fundamental to human culture, so when Mercyhurst University senior archaeology major Elizabeth Abernathy learned that preservationists and historians were looking to preserve one of the oldest cemeteries in Allegheny County, she heard a calling.
Pittsburgh’s Turner Cemetery is a half-acre graveyard dating back to 1785. It holds the remains of Squirrel Hill’s first residents, from infants to soldiers of the Revolutionary War. But, with headstones that had been moved or deteriorated to such a degree that inscriptions were illegible and with burial records nonexistent, it was impossible to tell where anyone was buried.
At the urging of archaeology faculty Allen Quinn and Mary Ann Owoc, Ph.D., Abernathy, 22, of Hickory, N.C., decided to research the cemetery for her senior thesis. The aim, she said, was not to identify the human remains – that would require a full-fledged excavation – but to use modern technology that she had worked with at Mercyhurst to determine the whereabouts of bodies.
“I photographed and recorded all the headstones, documenting everything from what type of stone they were to any epitaphs we could read,” Abernathy said. She also mapped and took GPS readings of the headstones’ locations – all 66 of them.
Her main goal, however, was to assess how effective magnetometry was in locating buried bodies and how the technology could be applied in funerary archaeology.
Using a fluxgate gradiometer, which detects electromagnetic anomalies in the soil, Abernathy attempted to discover where bodies might potentially be located. In the end, she believes she was able to find several and is optimistic that future studies will reveal even more. Those will have to be done by someone else, though, as Abernathy is poised to graduate from Mercyhurst May 19.
Her recent field work, like much of her experience as a Mercyhurst student, was motivating and reinforced her plans for the future.
“I came to Mercyhurst because I wanted a small school with a good archaeology program and, of course, Mercyhurst’s is among the best,” she said. “I’ve gotten a good hold on field work and field methods during my time here and have had so much support along the way.”
She credited Quinn and Owoc, not to mention Keiko Miller, whose Asian Studies program she minored in, along with religious studies.
“My goal is to focus on Southeast Asian archaeology, so I plan on moving to Thailand eventually to get some experience before enrolling in grad school,” she said.
And, if any funerary archaeology opportunities arise, she says she’ll be ready.