Specially trained dogs help sniff out historic cemetery site in Alabama

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hannah Wolfson
The Birmingham News

At first glance, the scene in a field in Perry County just looks like a couple of women walking their dogs.

But a closer look reveals something different. First, the brown-and-white border collies are slowly sniffing every inch of the ground. Second, when they reach a set of small orange flags, they change directions.

Third, the dogs’ owners carry not just rubber toys and bags of treats, but also a handful of human teeth.

These dogs are trained to sniff out historical remains. Unlike the more commonly used cadaver dogs who find missing people or disaster victims, they’re specially trained to find centuries-old bones.

They came to Alabama to help track down a historic cemetery that was plowed under in the last 100 years. It’s not of great general significance; in fact, it’s one of hundreds of family cemeteries that once dotted the state’s farms and fields but disappeared over time.

But it has meaning to Charles Weissinger, whose great-great-great grandfather, George Weissinger, settled this fertile patch of land about 10 miles from Marion in the early 1820s. The family long ago sold the property and moved away, but Weissinger and other family members tracked its history.

They knew that a small family plot once sat near the Federal farmhouse that burned down in 1917, and there may be an unmarked slave cemetery too. Weissinger has the shattered marble headstone that once marked the patriarch’s grave and he wants to restore it to its rightful place.

So about two years ago, he called up the Office of Archaeological Research for Alabama Museums, a part of the University of Alabama, looking for help.

V. Stephen Jones, whose expertise is in using ground-penetrating radar to find burial sites and other hidden parts of history — usually for companies, the transportation department or developers who are required to do such surveys before they pave over land — decided to give it a try.

Remote-sensing techniques like radar, satellite photography and even metal detectors allow archaeologists to pinpoint where to dig.

"It’s impractical to come in with a bulldozer and strip a 15- to 20-acre field looking for eight to 10 graves," Jones said.

But the radar didn’t work. Spurred on by Weissinger, Jones and other experts tried magnetic gradiometry, which also spots disturbances to the soil.

The magnetic technique led the team to the brick foundation of what they’re pretty certain is the main house. With that knowledge, plus oral histories of where the cemetery should be, they excavated part of a nearby field — and found nothing but dirt.

They were stuck. But then Jones heard about the Institute for Canine Forensics, which trains dogs to search for ancient human remains.

Since Weissinger was willing to try it, Jones figured he’d do a research study to see how the dogs compared to the technical devices. So far, it’s not clear whether they found anything.

By their third day of checking, all four dogs had focused in on a roughly 20-yard-square area near the house. Jones conducted a ground-penetrating radar search of the area and said he’s still analyzing the data. If his search proves promising, Jones said, they may do some small-scale digging just to see whether there’s evidence that would correspond with burial sites, although they don’t plan to dig up any remains.

"There is something going on there, and I am optimistic, but I’m also somewhat of a skeptic," Jones said. "This is a difficult task that we’re challenged with."

Four border collies — Rhea, Eros, Berkeley and Zuma, all cousins from the same breeder — came from California, Washington and North Carolina to tackle the project.

Unlike most recovery dogs, who are trained to spot decaying remains, these dogs learn to recognize human bones and teeth. Although some of the bodies have been buried for centuries, the dogs can still pick up trace scents.

The team has found cemeteries from the Napoleonic Wars and the Donner Party’s unfortunate trek across the West, and even turned up an unmarked grave in a fifth-century Czech cemetery that held Roman coins. A lot of the work they’ve done is on identifying Native American burial grounds on the West Coast before development moves in, but they started out helping police with cold murder cases.

"We kept getting calls for older and older stuff," said Adela Morris, the company’s director. "So we started playing with cemeteries and we got a lot of support from archaeologists and anthropologists who said this could really be useful."

Jones hopes his experiment shows that the dogs can be another tool in the archaeologists’ arsenal. He also just wants an answer.

"I will be completely honest with you — I want to solve the riddle," Jones said. "I’d like to have the satisfaction of knowing that we were successful."

But the most dedicated is Weissinger, who sat watching the dogs work, along with his cousin, Kenneth Weissinger of Birmingham.

"This is not an unusual story. This is a typical story," said Charles Weissinger, who lives in Auburn. "To us, it’s important. I’d like to plant that grave marker."

© 2012 Alabama Live LLC

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