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Steve Daniel, a UBC archaeology graduate student, used radar technology to locate burials in B.C. First Nation cemeteries - photo by Martin Dee
Steve Daniel, a UBC archaeology graduate student, used radar technology to locate burials in B.C. First Nation cemeteries - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 11 | Nov. 6, 2008

Finding the Lost: Ground Penetrating Radar Helps First Nations Honour Ancestors

By Basil Waugh

It may look like a lawnmower, but a new ground-penetrating radar (GPR) device is helping UBC researchers to find what is hiding deep underground.

Construction companies use the technology to find underground pipes and cables, but UBC archaeologists and B.C. First Nations recently used it to locate something much more sacred: missing loved ones.

At the Metro Vancouver-area Musqueam First Nation, numerous burials from the early 1900s, whose grave markers had been removed or lost due to weathering, were located using the GPR and several burials with questionable markers were confirmed.

Thanks to the GPR, there are now also more than 70 new markers at the Kwantlen First Nation’s cemetery in Maple Ridge, B.C. Each one honours an ancestor whose headstone or metal cross had gone missing from theft, vandalism and car accidents from a nearby highway.

The GPR burial surveys are the first of their kind in North America, says UBC archaeology professor Andrew Martindale. What’s more, the technology helped researchers locate these First Nations’ ancestors without lifting a shovel. GPR uses software to generate visual representations of underground objects based on radio signals that it sends and receives.

“Knowing where our loved ones are means a great deal for our people,” says Kwantlen Chief Marilyn Gabriel. “It was a very powerful moment when we first saw all those new markers above where are our ancestors lay.”

Chief Gabriel says the Kwantlen plan to replace the temporary markers with a permanent monument and are consulting with spiritual and cultural advisors. “In my heart, that will complete the work,” says Chief Gabriel.

“This was very important research,” said Delbert Guerin, Musqueam Councillor and Elder. “It is an opportunity to teach our youth about the history of our people and our land.”

In 2007, UBC and the Musqueam received $70,000 from UBC’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) to purchase the GPR device. It was piloted this past summer at an undergraduate field school created by UBC and the Musqueam.

“The field school enables UBC and the Musqueam to develop research projects that give students practical fieldwork experience and address the research interests of the Musqueam people,” says Martindale.

Martindale says the GPR burial surveys were made possible through the unique strengths of the Musqueam, the Kwantlen and UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology in the Dept. of Anthropology.

“Archaeologists don’t typically work with contemporary burial sites, so this reminded us of the sacredness of our ties to the past,” says Martindale. “Having Musqueam and Kwantlen elders there to guide our work was as important as our archaeological expertise.”

UBC has an ongoing relationship with the Musqueam that goes back to the 1940s, Martindale adds. That was when UBC’s first archaeologist Charles Borden and a young Musqueum band member, Andrew Charles, initiated collaborative research between the two communities.

 Steve Daniel, a UBC archaeology graduate student and head statistician for the Canadian Football League, says he “learned more in six weeks than in any book” during his fieldwork experience on Kwantlen territory.

Daniel says GPR, which has a subterranean range of five metres, is an important archaeological tool, especially in urban areas. “It allows you to see what’s down there, because you can’t go around digging up city streets,” he says, noting that archaeological digs are expensive and destructive. “And if you do excavate, this helps you to be exact as possible, saving time and money.”

Daniel, who recently completed his undergraduate studies at UBC, credits the GPR, his professors and his experiences with the Musqueam and Kwantlen for his decision to pursue graduate research.

“I grew up in South Vancouver and that’s what I want to investigate – that’s where my passion is,” he says. “The area is rich in ‘European settler history’ and ‘First Nations time immemorial history.’ Trying to match them up is pretty interesting to me.”

For Musqueam Richard Sparrow, who helped conduct the GPR surveys, the projects had special meaning.

 “As a Musqueam myself, finding unmarked graves was very important to me,” said the 27-year-old, who trained students on how to use GPR technology. “I also think our ancestors would have really appreciated our efforts. That is what I kept thinking while we did the work.”

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Last reviewed 12-Nov-2008

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