Historic cemetery research underway at Rookery Bay Reserve

Last week, resource managers with Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, working with the Kirkland family and the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN), moved forward with a historical research project. Thanks to Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), the process of locating unmarked graves and marking the boundaries of a historic cemetery has become a little bit easier.

The Kirkland family cemetery, located in the Reserve on Shell Island Road, rests many of the Kirkland family pioneering ancestors. Several descendants still reside in the area today and have been working to trace and document their family roots. The cemetery is one place where gaps exist in their history, because while some grave sites are well marked, others are not.

According to archaeologists with FPAN, historic cemeteries have long been among Florida’s most neglected historic resources. Until recently, there was no way of knowing what was buried under ground without digging, which, in some cases, can unintentionally destroy precious resources. Now, GPR is one of the best tools available to investigate and document these resources. It works like a boat fish finder, revealing “anomalies,” or items of different a density than the surrounding material, as it rolls across the ground.

With the help of several volunteers, Reserve staff and archaeologists with FPAN laid transects across the ground and rolled the GPR over each one. The device collected information from below strip by strip, and back at the lab software stitched the strips together to provide a more comprehensive image of what lies beneath.

While final results are still being analyzed, the information gathered during the survey suggests there are at least three unmarked graves, and possibly others. Then it will be up to the Kirkland descendants to piece together other clues as to who lies in those graves.

The Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Resources in cooperation with NOAA, encompasses 110,000 acres of coastal lands and waters between Naples and Everglades City. It serves as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for students and scientists from around the world.

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