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USF students, professors conduct research at cemetery for class study

USF students got a chance to put their archaeological skills to the test Friday over the grounds of the Potter’s Field Cemetery in Tampa, using radar technology to locate unmarked graves.

USF archaeology professor Lori Collins and geology professor Sarah Kruse’s classes used special equipment to determine the location of the graves.

“With our equipment, we can see directly into the ground and locate bodies,” said Thomas Strahan, a geotechnical engineering graduate student.

The cemetery was used as a burial site for indigent and unidentified people until the ‘60s. The graves were marked only with numbers, and Hillsborough County records on who might be buried there are incomplete.

Hillsborough County Surveyor Johnny Lyons said the county was contacted by Collins, who organized the event, to have access to the cemetery for research. Collins said the project gave students the opportunity for hands-on research and archaeological experience.

“What we’re doing is choosing a local site that has historical and social importance and we’re applying the appropriate technology to know how we can look for these kinds of features in a non-invasive way,” Collins said.

The grave-mapping project documented the number of graves in Potter’s Field Cemetery, which is located on 22nd Street in Tampa. No digging was done, so the site was not disturbed, Kruse said.

Students dragged ground penetrating radar (GPR) over the surface of the grounds, Kruse said. The GPR sends waves into the ground and if there are remains below, the radar waves reflect it, she said.

John Metz, a graduate student in civil engineering, said the project was a way to apply what has been taught in class to a real-life situation.

“It’s one thing to learn all the theories behind (it) and the equations,” he said. “But unless you get behind the machine that takes the data, look at the data and interpret it, knowing the theories is kind of useless.”

Students used a magnetometer as well, a device that is “sensitive to the presence of metal,” Kruse said. Using the magnetometer, students detected where possible coffins were buried, she said.

“If there were coffins with nails used, the nails should still be there,” Kruse said.

The information gathered from the cemetery will be used in class to “integrate historic documents with technology and the outputs from the technology,” Collins said.

County records will be used to help determine the identities of those buried at the Potter’s field site.

“There’s an outreach aspect to it, and it’s important because it’s allowing students to do real research,” Collins said.