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

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

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

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

“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.”