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Pieces of Eight

ECU graduate student, N.J. Mullens, right, guides a Summer Ventures student in surveying the Brinn farm near Bath. Students in the camp used radar technology to help a homeowner locate unmarked graves on her farm property. The homeowner is restoring her homeplace and wanted to protect the family’s graves. (Photos by Marc J. Kawanishi)

Students Help Uncover Family Graves

By Christine Neff

BATH, N.C. – Sue Brinn Conway, a native of Bath, returned home several years ago on a mission to restore the centuries-old farm and preserve her family’s history.

She came a step closer this summer with the help of archaeology students from East Carolina University.

The farm where Conway spent her childhood sits on 40 acres of land off of Burbage Road, 10 minutes away from historic Bath. As her parents aged (her father died recently at 98), she knew they would need help caring for the homestead.

“You leave home, you stay away for 35 years – which is what I did – and then, in your later years, all of this starts bubbling inside of you,” Conway said, in explaining the call to come back to the farm. “I just had to come home to save this place for another 100 years.”

She has since restored the farmhouse, built in 1834. Several dilapidated barns on the property were torn down, and the gardens and fields are being maintained. But one concern remained for Conway: what to do with the family graveyard. She knew she wanted to protect it.“

The idea was to preserve the hallowed ground,” she said. But, she didn’t know the location of most of the unmarked graves.

That’s where ECU students were able to help.

Over four days last month, students used radar technology to locate the family graves in Conway’s backyard.

The students took turns wheeling a piece of equipment called a ground-penetrating radar over the plot of land. Radio waves sent into the ground bounced back when they hit a buried object. A computer attached to the radar recorded the data.

The process identified several rows of possible graves. Jonathan Smith, an ECU graduate student who helped lead the project, said the data will be used to make maps for the family. “The only way to be 100 percent sure of what we found is to dig, but we’re not doing that here,” he said.

Even so, Conway said she was “just delighted” by the project and glad to pass on this bit of family history to the next generation. “They may not be interested, but at least it will all be recorded for them,” she said.

The project also gave North Carolina high school students in the Summer Ventures camp program the opportunity to see a different side of archaeology.

“It gives them a chance to see that archaeology isn’t just about digging holes,” Smith said. “There are other aspects to it – both technological, and in what you can do for the community.”

Campers got to try their hand at more traditional fieldwork at a dig site in historic Bath this July.

Dr. Charles Ewen, an ECU archeologist, supervised the dig, which is attempting to uncover a cellar used by merchants as a storehouse sometime between 1720 and 1780.

He hopes that, eventually, its contents will shed light on the sort of goods being shipped and sold to Bath residents at that time. “I want to see how plugged in they were, and what this can tell us about what life might have been like in Bath then,” he said.

The Summer Ventures students, with the help of ECU archeology students, shoveled and sifted the dirt, carefully watching for pieces of pottery and other artifacts.

“It’s very tedious,” admitted Andrew Liguori of Wilmington, a Summer Ventures participant. But, he said, he enjoyed finding the historic items. “I feel like I’m actually finding something for the first time,” he said.

Camper Kara Williams of Morehead City noted how different actual fieldwork is from the fossil hunts portrayed in movies. “You don’t find a lot here, but when you do find something, it means a lot,” she said.

Ewen said the students got a feel for all aspects of archeological work by participating in the dig. “Quite frankly, the little bit of research I get out of this is a bonus,” he said.

This page originally appeared in the Aug. 1, 2008 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at