Non-invasive Cemetery Survey

Researchers working with Alexandria Archaeology (a division of the Office of Historic Alexandria) and the City of Alexandria conducted a non-invasive geophysical survey at two historic cemeteries maintained by the City.

Page updated on Nov 5, 2019 at 9:41 AM

Non-invasive Archaeological Survey at Douglass Memorial Cemetery and Penny Hill Cemetery

Updated November 5, 2019

Electrical resistivity testing on a site in Alexandria, Virginia. This instrument can detect variations in the soil caused by burials.Researchers working with Alexandria Archaeology (a division of the Office of Historic Alexandria) and the City of Alexandria conducted a non-invasive geophysical survey at two historic cemeteries maintained by the City.

Penny Hill Cemetery was established in 1795 by the City of Alexandria for use as the municipal burying ground and was in use for approximately 180 years. Historic documentation exists for 906 burials that occurred during the 20th century, yet only 11 markers survive. Douglass Memorial Cemetery was established in 1895 by the Douglass Memorial Cemetery Association as a segregated African American cemetery. Records suggest close to 2000 people may have been buried at Douglass, yet fewer than 700 markers are visible today. In both cases, the number of historically documented burials far outnumbers the number of standing markers. In order to maintain and preserve these cemeteries, it is important to know where burials exist and where they do not.

This non-invasive survey used two geophysical survey techniques (ground penetrating radar and electrical conductivity) to identify the potential locations of burials without physically disturbing the ground. These instruments were dragged or pushed along the ground and recorded characteristics of the soil that may indicate burials. Similar surveys have been conducted at historic cemeteries elsewhere in the City, including at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, Fort Ward, Ivy Hill Cemetery, and St. Mary’s Cemetery.

This project was partially funded through a Certified Local Government grant from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Fieldwork at Penny Hill Cemetery and Douglass Memorial Cemetery lasted a week and a half, starting in mid-October 2019. Results from this survey will be published and shared on the Alexandria Archaeology online bibliography.

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