Radar Analysis Sheds New Light on Old Church History Sites

Contributed By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 13 April 2015

In a March 2012 photo, BYU archaeology students are shown working at the site of the Provo Tabernacle, built between 1856 and 1867.  Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Article Highlights

  • The GPR, ground-penetrating radar, has allowed historians to get a new look at historical Church sites.
  • Historians have used the GPR to learn about sites such as Hawn’s Mill, a cemetery in Far West, and the old Provo Tabernacle.

“As Latter-day Saints we promise to witness and remember. The historic sites of the Church are three-dimensional witnesses of the reality of the Restoration of the gospel in this last dispensation. And we show God that we do remember what He has done for us in these last days and we are grateful for it.” —Benjamin Pykles, historic sites curator 

PROVO, UTAH

To onlookers, it might appear like a scene from an episode of the television show Crime Scene Investigation. Specially trained dogs and remote sensing technologies are being used at multiple Church historic sites to discover elements of the past. Benjamin Pykles, a historic sites curator with the Church History Department, gave a presentation at the annual Quey Hebrew Memorial lecture March 27 at Brigham Young University detailing research at five locations.

In April 2012, the Church acquired an 80-acre parcel of land from the Community of Christ in Far West, Missouri. It is believed to contain a cemetery with about 200 to 250 graves of early Church members, including Apostle David W. Patten, said Brother Pykles.

With only a few clues to go on, researchers used an 1897 atlas showing the symbol of a schoolhouse and an unidentified rectangle. “We don’t know what it is. It wasn’t labeled. From other sources we had a hunch that it might be the cemetery,” he said.

Using a variety of techniques, Church history researchers investigated the parcel. The first thing they tried were specially trained dogs that can smell historic human remains. “These dogs are very effective in helping you narrow down your search,” said Brother Pykles.

After searching about 20 acres of the parcel, every single dog alert came from the northeast corner where the schoolhouse and alleged cemetery were. Before digging anything up, researchers used some additional remote sensing technologies, said Brother Pykles.

Artifacts from the recent excavation of the Provo Tabernacle site are on display at the BYU Museum of People and Cultures. Photo by Deseret News.

In 2010, the Provo Tabernacle was destroyed by fire. A photo in March 2012 shows the progress of the excavation work being done before the construction began to turn the building into a temple. Photo by Kristin Murphy, Deseret News.

Laying out a grid on the parcel using 20-meter cells, researchers began using a magnetometer. This instrument measures magnetic fields to the depth of about one and a half meters as it is moved along the ground. “The results from the magnetometer showed a few spots of interest, especially where the foundation of the old schoolhouse had been,” said Brother Pykles. “But it was not as revealing as we had hoped, so we went to another technology called ground-penetrating radar.”

The GPR is an antenna mounted on a stroller containing a receiver and a transmitter that is pushed back and forth across the ground. It emits radar waves into the ground, and if they encounter an object or a significant change in the soil the waves bounce back and create a reading that is picked up by the receiver. “Graves can show up quite nicely if the soil conditions are right,” said Brother Pykles. “We were really hopeful that this technology would be able to locate the cemetery.”

The GPR results revealed some anomalies that could possibly represent graves. “We thought we might have the cemetery so we decided to dig,” said Brother Pykles. Using a small backhoe the researchers dug trenches in the area using the data from the GPR and dog alerts. “We didn’t find any artifacts,” said Brother Pykles. “We didn’t even find any rocks. It was pure clay soil.”

The next location discussed during the presentation was the Hawn’s Mill massacre site approximately 20 miles to the east of Far West. It is about a 40-acre parcel acquired at the same time as the Far West site, and only about six acres of it is clear.

“There is absolutely nothing on the surface to indicate where anything was except for a marker placed in 1941 that explains this was the site of the Hawn’s Mill massacre,” said Brother Pykles. “There were several features of interest that we were hoping to locate using remote sensing. The first is the actual mill site of Jacob Hawn’s mill.” The second location of interest was the blacksmith shop in which several men were shot and killed.

Another place of interest from historical accounts was a 10- to 12-foot unfinished dry well where the bodies of the men and boys killed by the mob were placed, said Brother Pykles. “Unsure if the militia might come back, the survivors thought the well was a quick and easy way to bury the dead and evacuate the site,” he said.

The same technologies from the Far West site were used at the Hawn’s Mill site. The search dogs alerted to a clustered area in the west part of the property. “We started excavating in what we thought might be the old well,” said Brother Pykles. “We went down nine feet by hand in very dense clay soil. But just like in Far West, they didn’t even find a single rock. There were no artifacts, but they did discover water at about eight feet.”

In December 2010, the Provo Tabernacle was severely damaged by fire. The decision by the Church was to rebuild the tabernacle and make it a temple. Brother Pykles said, “When they announced that the tabernacle would be rebuilt as a temple and that facilities would have to extend underground to accommodate the uses of the temple, the Church History Department said, ‘Wait a second, we know there was an earlier tabernacle in the area where you want to dig a big hole. We would like to study that area before you start digging there.’”

Using GPR, researchers discovered clear signs showing the footprint of the old tabernacle, complete with exterior and interior walls, a foyer, and vestry, said Brother Pykles. Permission was granted to excavate the site, and many discoveries were made. “We learned a lot about this building, how it was used, and construction techniques. We also discovered a caretaker’s cottage and baptistry. This was a compelling story about how the Saints worshipped over time. We would have never known where to dig or the extent of the remains that were left had we not done the radar analysis.”

A variety of research has been done in Nauvoo, Illinois. Using GPR, researchers found a home foundation worthy of testing. “Radar works very well in Nauvoo,” said Brother Pykles. “We excavated a small circular pit in the middle of the strong radar anomaly and discovered all kinds of rubble, such as bricks, bones, nails, pieces of ceramics, and metal.”

Abandoned cellars in destroyed homes in Nauvoo were often used as trash dumps by others. But this particular home was different, said Brother Pykles. “Through the research we were able to discover that this home only had half a cellar.”

The final site shown in the presentation was in northeastern Pennsylvania where Joseph Smith received the priesthood in 1829. Construction of a new meetinghouse and visitors’ center is currently underway, but the Church is also reconstructing the home of Joseph and Emma Smith and the home of Emma Smith’s parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale, said Brother Pykles.

Previous excavation done before 2011 to uncover the foundation of the Hale family home resulted in a complicated series of overlapping foundations, said Brother Pykles. It was unclear what parts of the remaining structure were the original Hale home and which parts were built later. Brother Pykles suggested doing some GPR near the old foundation in hope of finding something previous researchers had missed.

“Sure enough, we went out there and did GPR right up against the excavated foundation,” said Brother Pykles. “What we discovered was that one of the walls of the home had an extension. We would have never been able to come to that conclusion without the remote sensing. This was a significant contribution to a very important site for the Church.”

In relation to why work like this is being done in the Church, Brother Pykles said, “As Latter-day Saints we promise to witness and remember. The historic sites of the Church are three-dimensional witnesses of the reality of the Restoration of the gospel in this last dispensation. And we show God that we do remember what He has done for us in these last days and we are grateful for it.”