Using Science to Uncover History: A Geophysical Investigation of Wyatt Chapel Cemetery

By Alison T. Henning, Ginger Burns, Richard Hoffman, and Brian Jacoby in the Journal of History and Culture 1:2 (2009): 53-66.


Wyatt Chapel Cemetery is an abandoned cemetery located in Prairie View, Texas. Oral histories from local residents suggest that the cemetery originated as a slave burial ground in the mid-nineteenth century. The local community is interested in examining the cemetery in order to document the history of the area. In July 2007 and February 2008, participants in a graduate course at Rice University acquired global positioning system and ground-penetrating radar data at the cemetery. The soil at the field site is ideally suited for radar work and the subsurface image quality was excellent. Numerous anomalies were identified that are consistent with unmarked burials. Two of these anomalies were excavated and confirmed as burials. The stratigraphy consists of 3-6 feet of sand overlying a hard clay, and the boundary produces a very bright reflector. In the main clearing of the cemetery site, the sand-clay boundary deepens abruptly from 3 feet to approximately 5 feet. This anomaly was initially considered a possible man-made excavation, perhaps a mass burial site. While the stratigraphy does contain abrupt terminations, most depth changes occur gradually, suggesting formation by natural processes.