The Fiske Center Blog

Weblog for the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

April 23, 2013
by Meagan Ratini

Mount Gilead AME Church Cemetery Survey

A few weeks ago, a team from UMass Boston and the Fiske Center traveled southwest to Pennsylvania to survey another historically African-American cemetery. Whereas the recently-studied cemetery on Shelter Island was used for enslaved individuals, this cemetery was created at a later point in time, when free people as well as those who escaped from slavery were forming many of their own communities. Many such communities were centered around churches which explicitly served African-American congregations—as did the Mount Gilead AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church.

UMass Boston grad student Allison Conner (left) obtains GPS points while Dr. John Steinberg places flags to mark where the GPR survey would be conducted. Mt. Gilead AME Church is in the background.

Founded sometime in the 1830s, Mount Gilead sits on a wooded ridge in Buckingham, Pennsylvania. At the time of its founding, the church was located in an area surrounded by farms mostly owned by white Quakers. Little has been documented about this church’s history and its relationship with the surrounding areas, although the church leadership believes that there were once one hundred families who lived on the ridge line and comprised the community of the church.

The people buried in the church cemetery include freeborn African-Americans, individuals who escaped or were emancipated from slavery, as well as some people without African descent who have been part of the mountain community as it’s changed over the past century. Local legends and local histories tie this church even more strongly to the Underground Railroad (Blockson 1975:13), including to the figure of Benjamin “Big Ben” Jones, whose dramatic recapture by Southern slave hunters was recently fictionalized in an independent film.

UMass Boston graduate students Nadia Kline (left) and Allison Conner prepare the cemetery for the survey on an unseasonably cold morning.

In terms of the research for my master’s thesis, I am interested in seeing whether the cemetery was in use before the church actually owned the property, potentially suggesting the surreptitious use of this land by people of the Underground Railroad or suggesting types of aid which Quakers in this area may have provided to the people of the church.

In order to do this, we needed to map the locations of extant gravestones as well as use shallow geophysics to see whether all graves in the cemetery are marked. Thanks to a research grant from the Graduate Student Assembly at UMass Boston, I was able to bring several professors (Drs. John Steinberg and John Schoenfelder) as well as two of my fellow graduate students to the site to survey the whole area of the cemetery both above ground and by using ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

John Steinberg pulls the GPR antenna along the ground while Nadia Kline watches the read-out on its monitor.

GPR “sees” graves by sending and receiving pulses of electromagnetic energy into the soil and recording the reflections of that energy off of changes in the ground structure as well as reflections from buried objects.  You can see an example from the Sylvester Manor project for an idea of what these read-outs look like or read a slightly more detailed description of the technology in another Fiske Center blog post.  Unfortunately, GPR has no way to determine the actual age of anything it sees, but by studying the results in combination with archival documents, I’m hoping to be able to be able to answer these and other questions.

The results of this work are still forthcoming, but should help bring to light more about this church’s history, growth, and persistence in the area.  It should also help with ongoing preservation efforts at the church and cemetery.



Blockson, Charles L.
1975    Pennsylvania’s Black History. Louise B. Stone, editor. Portfolio Associates, Philadelphia, PA.

April 6, 2013
by Meagan Ratini

Sylvester Manor Cemetery Survey: What were we looking for?

If you’ve been following the blog lately, you may have seen several posts relating to our recent work at Sylvester Manor. Located on Shelter Island, New York, this site has deep connections with the Fiske Center. In mid-March, a team from UMass Boston spent several days conducting a small geophysical survey on the grounds of the manor.

Steve Mrozowski (right, foreground) and John Steinberg take the GPR unit on a test run before beginning a full survey. John Schoenfelder (background) maps the area.

The original multi-year research project at Sylvester Manor was concerned with understanding the interrelationships of the various groups of people who interacted at the site in the 1600s and 1700s, including Anglo-Dutch colonists, enslaved Africans, and Native American laborers. These peoples’ presence was known from historic documents, although not all of them left their own writings. What is clear from this and the archaeological findings are that the interactions among all of these people changed them and their cultures in profound ways. However, it is often difficult to tease out these specific influences from the artifacts alone (Mrozowski et al. 2007:2-8).

One particular location on the manor’s grounds where these kinds of changes may be more visible is the area said to be the manor’s slave cemetery. Since the late 19th century, a memorial has stood commemorating the “Burial Ground for the Colored People of Sylvester Manor.” This memorial and local lore attest to the idea that this place was where the plantation’s slaves were being buried, as early as the 1600s. Although a fence marks off its location from the surrounding low hills, and some small rocks dot the area like grave markers, it is not possible to confirm or deny the story just by looking at the ground’s surface. Out of respect for the dead and respect for any living descendants, as well as in accordance with various laws and good archaeological practice, Fiske Center researchers planned no excavations of the cemetery grounds to try to answer this question.

GPR Slice image of the study areas, about 60 centimeters below the ground surface. The red box marks the location of the fence. The smaller area to the right is the control area.

In order to see if the area holds any burials, the team (including Drs. Steve Mrozowski, John Steinberg, and John Schoenfelder, as well as three UMass Boston graduate students) opted to use a shallow geophysical technique called ground-penetrating radar (GPR). GPR works by sending out regular pulses of electromagnetic energy into the ground at a similar frequency to cell phone transmissions. These waves bounce off of different kinds of surfaces underground, such as geological layers, rocks, or buried human-made features like foundations and graves. The GPR unit receives the reflected waves and produces a radargram, which is read for particular kinds of anomalies. Since these readings are taken in closely-spaced straight lines across the study area, the radargrams produced are then “sliced” so that it’s possible to see what the ground looks like at various depths across the whole area at once. These slices effectively “excavate” the ground at different depths and allow researchers to see the kinds of things that may be found at those depths. (See John Steinberg’s illustration of this, including what archaeologists look for in the radargrams.)

Since other kinds of anomalies, such as tree roots, can sometimes appear like graves, we also collected data in a control area–a second area outside of the fenced cemetery but nearby and still within the same type of natural setting. Even in the field, it was clear that the areas looked very different in terms of the GPR. The types of anomalies seen in the fenced area were not being found outside of it, potentially proving that the cemetery, is, in fact, where it’s said to be.

UMass Boston graduate students Nadia Kline (left) and Allison Conner process GPR data on a day when fieldwork was rained out.

More analysis needs to be conducted in order to draw any definitive conclusions about the data, but the preliminary results suggest the presence of graves within the area known as a burial ground. It is highly unlikely that the GPR alone would be able to show whether the burials are of enslaved persons, but positive geophysical results lend credence to the stories told about this place.

This study marked the first archaeological field research conducted at Sylvester Manor in about five years, and certainly proves that there is always more that places like this can teach us. In this case, finding probable graves within the cemetery reminds us not to dismiss oral histories, but to explore how they bear out under further scrutiny.




Mrozowski, Stephen A., Katherine Howlett Hayes, and Anne P. Hancock
2007           The Archaeology of Sylvester Manor. Northeast Historical Archaeology 36: 1-15.



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