Saskatchewan University Researchers Seek Approval for Advanced Grave Detection Techniques at Historic Cemetery


University of Saskatchewan researchers are seeking permission to utilize a historical Saskatoon cemetery for ground-breaking testing procedures. The ultimate goal is to refine techniques that may eventually assist in identifying unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

City officials will review the proposed project on Wednesday, where anthropologist professor Terence Clark’s plans to experiment with technologies like ground penetrating radar and advanced soil probing will be discussed. These innovative techniques have immense potential to improve the mapping of grave locations. Positioned in Nutana Pioneer Cemetery, this exploration needs to obtain authorization from city council as the selected zone is a recognized municipal heritage property.

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The project would be spearheaded by Professor Clark, who would guide a group of undergraduate and graduate participants through a comprehensive ground penetrating radar survey and soil probing exercises. This task aims to ascertain the boundaries of known burial grounds, thereby enhancing the application of geophysical techniques.

Assisting in the project, geotechnical engineering specialist Vanessa Heilman shares, “This will pave the way for using these techniques to locate unmarked graves at other locations in the future.”

Ground penetrating radar works by transmitting radio waves into the soil and documenting the reflections as they bounce back off subterranean objects. These signals then produce a radargram that researchers can interpret. Other sophisticated technology, namely S4 soil probing, enables the specialists to analyze the soil’s chemical composition and detect shifts in underground pressure, potentially indicating where earth has been scraped away and replaced.

This innovative probe, roughly as slender as a pencil, is inserted into the ground. At the bottom, a sapphire lens emits light, scrutinizing the soil’s colour spectra. Remarkably, not only can this apparatus examine the soil’s fundamental elements but it can also identify the remnants of fatty acids produced during human decomposition. Consequently, it allows for the identification of unknown burial sites.

The process begins with ground penetrating radar which scans for irregularities beneath the surface. Any detected anomalies that match the characteristics of undiscovered graves are further investigated with the S4 probe. According to the probe’s findings, clusters of S4 hits in sync with decreased soil pressure zones and radar irregularities significantly reinforce the likelihood of an unmarked burial site.

Researchers allied to the geophysics and anthropology departments at the University of Saskatchewan have previously worked in Nutana Cemetery with minimal disturbance, reassures Heilman. To streamline the evolving research, city administration proposes to formulate a new bylaw. This rule would empower a manager to approve future inquiries, minimizing the need for annual council grants.

Despite the complicated and heart-wrenching task of locating unmarked graves at residential schools being a painful process for communities and survivors, this new technology might offer some solace. The implementation of these innovative explorations could provide closure and validation for the bereaved, the report indicates. Pending approval, the project is expected to commence before the onset of winter.

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