Archeology students at University of Arkansas - Fort Smith were looking for evidence of unmarked graves on March 2 and learned that there is more to this world than meets the eye, according to Duncan P. McKinnon of West Fork, instructor of a Methods in Archeology class.
“We visited the Fairview Cemetery in Van Buren to look for unmarked gravesites,” McKinnon said. “The students’ mission was to help the cemetery officials improve their planning of future burials and, hopefully, identify the gravesites of interred individuals through historical research. In the process, they learned how to use modern archaeological geophysics technology, including electrical resistivity, magnetic gradiometry and ground-penetrating radar.”
McKinnon said the students are taking a course that’s an introduction to remote sensing methods related to the discovery and mapping of buried or hidden archaeological features. He said the special topics course focuses on lectures and hands-on experience. The geophysical instruments they used at the archaeological site were on loan from the Arkansas Archeological Survey in Fayetteville, which also has a station on the UAFS campus.
Participants were able to identify evidence of burial spaces which they documented and appended to the cemetery records. McKinnon said this work provided an understanding of the distribution and extent of historic burials in the survey area.
Randy Smith, a funeral director in Van Buren, was responsible for Fairview Cemetery being placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. He volunteers as the mayoral appointed liaison for Fairview Cemetery to the Van Buren Historic District. He said the cemetery is undergoing a period of professional restoration and preservation of its monuments. The area where the students conducted their research was originally known as “Potter’s Field,” according to Smith.
“A cemetery is a physical record of a community’s history and the people who shaped it,” Smith said. “It’s a place where people learn their local history. The fact that these students are coming here to learn this technology is huge.”
According to Smith, many of the monuments in Fairview are Victorian-era works of funerary art. When they’re damaged or lost, the story of the people is lost with them and the history they relate can’t be replaced.
“Duncan McKinnon’s students being at the cemetery is especially gratifying,” Smith said. “It raises the community’s level of awareness of the history in the cemetery and helps us raise money to restore the monuments through activities like ‘Tales of the Crypt."
McKinnon said this field exercise is important to his students.
“Terrestrial-based remote sensing in archaeological applications is quickly becoming a primary tool to explore and map the subsurface prior to excavations,” McKinnon said. “Students that are interested in archaeology and historic preservation need to learn these methods.”
He added that, in many instances, excavations are not financially or ethically feasible, which makes a method of mapping the subsurface using non-invasive measures important.
“It’s highly unlikely, for instance, that Fairview Cemetery, where the distribution of historic burials is currently unknown, will ever be excavated,” McKinnon said. “Results from our survey will help the cemetery overseers in their ongoing historic preservation research.”
McKinnon said there is one more benefit to the field exercise.
“Students learned about the Fairview Cemetery and how the history of the cemetery fits into the community in which they live,” he said. “This experience is beneficial not only as an opportunity to understand remote sensing methods that can be applied to potential future employment, but it also offers visibility to the rich history of the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren and the Fairview Cemetery.”
Only a third of the class members were involved in the March 2 trip. Other students are scheduled for similar exercises on March 9 and 16.
Students participating in the Fairview Cemetery field days:
Alma: Kelsey Bean.
Charleston: Alicia White.
Fort Smith: Kevin Curry, Kylah Davis, Yessenia Esparza, Craig Johnson, Michel Lacrue, Ryan Millican, James Minor, Christina Old, Robert Robinson and Susan Smithson.
Leflore, Okla.: Randa Grant.
Mountainburg: Jacquelynn Rupp.
Muldrow, Okla.: Jason Hoyt.
Ozark: Katie Dunn and John Yates.
Van Buren: James Ellison, Colby Green, Christal Moua, James Oden and Joseph Rupp.
UAFS is “very active” in archeological learning, according to Dr. Henry Rinne, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. The Ark-Homa Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society and the Oklahoma Anthropological Society meet on the third Thursday of each month on campus and present a lecture on recent regional discoveries. The meetings are hosted by the research station located at UAFS, with Tim Mulvihill as research station archeologist.