ICT Ph.D. students, engineers help Boy Scouts on Memorial Day project
Above: Ph.D. student Shan Zhao uses a Ground Positioning Radar (GPR) system to pinpoint buried gravestones.
By Kimberly Howard
Illinois Center for Transportation (ICT) students and engineers gave back to the community over Memorial Day by using their expertise to find the graves of forgotten soldiers, all the while helping some local Boy Scouts.
Bryant Cemetery is nestled in a close-knit community of farm homes and sprawling cornfields in the Village of Mahomet. It is Champaign County’s oldest burial grounds.
“1832 was the first known burial and it was on the far side of the cemetery,” Mahomet historian Greg Pasley said.
But even Pasley, who has studied this area for more than 30 years, does not know exactly where each grave is.
“We think there’s up to 300 burials here and only about a hundred of them are marked,” Pasley said. “There are probably stones that are underground that haven’t seen daylight for a hundred plus years. And then there’s of course burials that had no stones.”
That is where the team of University of Illinois Ph.D. students and ICT engineers came in. The crew unraveled cords and carted in a wagon loaded with high-tech equipment usually reserved for studying roads and bridges.
“Before this, all I was thinking of using this technology for was in construction sites. But this is the first time I’m using this to do this kind of job,” Ph.D. student Siqi Wang said.
This kind of job involves pinpointing the buried.
“So basically the [Ground Positioning Radar] GPR is working by sending electromagnetic waves towards the ground. It’s similar to the radar [used to detect a] plane but instead of shooting toward the air, we’re shouting toward the ground,” Ph.D. student Shan Zhao said. “Whenever there is something different than soil it will generate a reflection. So potentially on the screen we can see a parabola- it’s like a shape, a parabola- so then we know there’s something different than soil.”
“It can be a body, or a coffin, or a hollow space, or even a tree root, but as long as it is something different underneath we need to mark that and we can analyze later what’s going on beneath the surface,” Wang said.
“The data that we are collecting thus far is almost exclusively of the gravesites and where that will help them in locating potentially some buried gravestones is if we have a gravesite marked and there’s no visible stone they know then to look in that area for a buried gravestone,” ICT engineer Michael Johnson said.
Historians say among the forgotten here are several soldiers. That fact did not sit well with Boy Scout Logan Thomas Weiss.
“I just want there to be a marker of: this man existed in this world. And let’s honor him,” Weiss said.
The 16-year-old Boy Scout enlisted the help of a few friends.
“I’ve always had a fascination with the Army. I can’t join because of my disability, being deaf, but I think I want to respect the people that are buried here by finding their tombstones and hopefully restoring them,” Weiss said.
The project is the last requirement he must fulfill as a Boy Scout in order to earn his wings.
“This is the project I need to do for the community so that I can get my Eagle,” Weiss said. “It’s going to be awesome. Yeah. I’ve always wanted to be an Eagle Scout.”
With the help of soil probes, the Boy Scouts, Ph.D. students and engineers were able to find and unearth their first forgotten gravestone just hours after arriving on site. They will likely unearth many more stones after the data they collected can be analyzed. Pasley says he would like to have as many buried stones as possible re-laid and preserved.