I have just concluded my directed study project which was focused on researching a new methodology for the indirect detection of unmarked burial sites using ground penetrating radar. Being responsible for researching and writing up a larger sized project, and drawing on various sources for literature including interstate collections has been a valuable learning experience. However the most rewarding experience has been the opportunity to be involved in undertaking research with important implications for locating the burial location of a significant Indigenous historical figure.
Geophysical techniques are commonly used for the location of unmarked graves. Contrary to the perceptions of many researchers, most studies rely not on imaging skeletal material but instead on distinguishing the subsurface disturbance created by grave digging. This approach can only be effective when sufficient contrast exists between detectable properties of the grave fill and the surrounding sediment, such as soil structure, mineralogy or porosity. This is particularly problematic where anthropogenic fill is in place, as it is often complex in character and lacks a natural stratigraphy.
In many cultural heritage projects, the avoidance of burials is more important than their location. Under these circumstances, ground penetrating radar (GPR) can be used to locate modern anthropogenic fill (in the same fashion as it is commonly applied in the engineering and environmental literature) to provide evidence of areas of the site which are younger than the targeted graves. This approach was trialled on a site thought to contain the grave of Mokare, a significant historical figure in the Albany area. The delineation of a package of modern fill in the shallow subsurface and a consideration of the probable history of earthworks on the site demonstrates that Mokare is not buried in the surveyed location. By avoiding the need to detect burials by grave digging disturbance, this approach could allow wide application of geophysical techniques to suitable sites.
I have written my study up as an academic paper which will be submitted to the Journal of Field Archaeology and as an academic presentation which I will present at the upcoming Australian Archaeological Association Conference at Batemans Bay.Thank you to the Albany Heritage Reference Group Aboriginal Corporation and Dave Guilfoyle from Applied Archaeology for organising for this data to be collected, the Albany Public Library for assisting with historical information, Alice Beale (WA Museum) for assistance with research the life of Mokare and the Australian Archaeological Association for funding my attendance at the conference to present this work.
By Paul Bladon