History Unearthed: Archaeologists Help Kentucky Families Connect with Their Past

April 07, 2021

cemetery excavation

Terracon professionals remove remains from an abandoned cemetery.

Progress can sometimes result in unintended consequences. The construction of Interstate 65 through Kentucky long ago cut off access to a remote family cemetery near the town of Horse Cave. The small, 50-by-50-foot plot may have remained forgotten if not for a proposed development of the 55-acre site around it.

A standard Phase I environmental site assessment (ESA) by Terracon’s Nashville, Tennessee, office revealed the existence of the cemetery. The goal of properly relocating the graves while keeping the project on schedule for our client involved several unique challenges.

Surveying a Long-Forgotten Cemetery

The graveyard, known locally as the Barbour-Dale Cemetery, sat adjacent to a former family farm that was abandoned before the 1950s prior to construction of Interstate 65. It was the final resting place for members of the Barbour, Boyd, Crump, and Dale families, all from Horse Cave, Kentucky. Nature reclaimed the plot over the years, covering it in dense growth.

Investigations of the cemetery involved geophysical methods including a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey, magnetic susceptibility survey, and ground conductivity survey to locate the unmarked graves. The initial investigation indicated that there were two rows of graves within the area of observed headstones and footstones. Eleven graves were identified, and four headstones indicated dates from 1880 to 1926.

Planning for a Proper Exhumation and Reinterment

Our research determined the project did not require any federal or state permits that would trigger compliance with cultural resource laws. The plot instead was treated as an abandoned cemetery and fell within the purview of Hart County, per Kentucky state law.

The first step of grave relocation was working with our client to place a public notice of intent in a local newspaper to notify any remaining family members. Distant family members of the deceased came forward with their knowledge about the cemetery. Our team also represented the client at a public meeting to discuss the relocation of the graves and planned activities for the site.

Terracon helped to comply with Kentucky’s burial laws regarding the relocation of graves. After several months of coordination with the families and through the local legal process, the cemetery was declared abandoned and on-site activities could proceed, with the graves and headstones relocated to a suitable nearby cemetery.

Headstones from abandoned cemetery

Recovered headstones from the abandoned cemetery.

Terracon archeologists worked diligently over a 10-day period to excavate the graves in November 2020. The process began by mechanically removing the topsoil from known graves and a 10-foot area around them to confirm there were no additional unmarked burials. Our archaeologists manually removed the remaining soils and exhumed the remains by hand.

Relatives of the deceased were invited to the site to watch the process. The human remains, personal artifacts, and coffins unearthed during the exhumation process were placed in vessels for transport to a local funeral home, along with all remaining headstones and monuments. The 11 individuals were reinterred in local cemeteries with the coordination of city officials and a local funeral director.

The reinterment of the individuals from the forgotten Barbour-Dale Cemetery was more than just following required laws and helping our client proceed with their planned development. It also allowed members of a tightknit community to learn more about their family history.

Christopher Green, P.G. Christopher Green, P.G., is a senior project manager and national account manager for Terracon’s Nashville office and directs environmental projects throughout the state. He has more than 23 years of experience and is well-versed in both governmental and federal protocols and regulations and actively fosters community outreach through mentoring future geologists and engineers.

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