Archeology team scans Saskatoon cemetery for lost graves

Archeology students from the University of Saskatchewan are scanning a century-old cemetery in Saskatoon to map lost graves.

This week nine undergrads and two graduate students deployed ground-penetrating radars (GPR) at Nutana Cemetery.

“After the people were put in the cemetery there was some erosion and what the city did was they moved some of the remains back into the cemetery and they didn’t mark where those remains were,” said Lennon Sproule, a third-year archeology student.

“So we were trying to locate where those unmarked remains were and we were also trying to mark out where we think the remains were.”

The GPR technology allows the team to recognize what’s underground, from a burial pit, to undisturbed soil, to a coffin.

“We’re using new software to image in 3D, under the soil and so we were able to not just model the grave shaft, but in the bottom of that we have a very rectangular very dense object which has to be the coffin, and that’s the first time I’ve seen that in my GPR work and I think once we process more we’ll see more of that,” professor Terence Clark told CTV News.

The cemetery has 162 known burial sites, of which the city has already identified 144. Fifty-one are babies and 14 are children under the age of 16, according to the city. Clark said there are about 18 grave sites unaccounted for. Clark said Nutana Cemetery was the first burial grounds in Saskatoon, dating back to 1884.

The first burial was Robert Clarke, a recent arrival who contracted pneumonia after helping fight a grass fire, according to the city. Clarke was buried on the riverbank and Nutana Cemetery became the unofficial burying ground for Saskatoon.

“Our goal is to be 100 per cent clear on what small unmarked children’s graves look like, where we’re not going to dig them in the future,” Clark said.

Data collected through the 3D modelling will allow the city to have accurate records in case of future erosion, vandalism and weathering.

The models can also be used to enhance the text present on the stones. Text that is not readable to the naked eye can be captured, read and preserved.

Clark is also using GPR technology on a much larger scale, identifying forgotten burial sites at residential schools, as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action.