On May 30, The Herald met with an archaeologist from Minnesota State University-Mankato, whose help was enlisted by Pastor Diane Goulson of Redeemer Lutheran Church outside of Belle Plaine. This story, the first part of a series, aims to detail the origins and background details of the archaeological and geophysical study currently being performed at the church’s cemetery. Keep an eye on future issues of The Herald as we delve into key findings, history and the science of the ongoing project, as well as various facets of the world of archaeology.
One looking at the cemetery on the grounds of Redeemer Lutheran Church outside of Belle Plaine might notice that the grave stones dating back to multiple decades in the 1800s are not in perfect rows. One also might notice the large chunks of missing gravestones there.
For Diane Goulson, the congregation’s pastor, this is a glaring issue, not only as a matter of historical stewardship, but also for the present-day congregation members who have burial rights in the cemetery and wish to be buried there. Why are open spaces a problem? Because she’s not convinced that those spaces are entirely empty.
“There’s just these huge areas that we want to know if there’s grave sites under there,” Goulson said as she pointed at the asymmetrical graveyard.
She knew she needed some experts, so she enlisted Dr. Ron Schirmer for the task of finding out whether or not those spots are as empty as they seem.
Tools of the Trade
Dr. Ron Schirmer of the Minnesota State University Archaeology Department passed a wheeled, ground-penetrating radar along a taped row of about 15 feet from within Redeemer Cemetery. Behind him, Luke Burds carried a digital monitor that interprets and visualizes the data gathered by the device measuring sub-surface materials’ differential dialectic constant, their differing ability to store or let electrical energy pass through them. On Luke’s screen were several waves and hyperbola, U-shaped figures rendered from the machine’s measurements that indicate the presence of a material with a relatively strange dialectic constant. Archaeologists refer to these shapes visible on their devices as ‘hits.’ On May 30, the team from MSU saw several ‘hits’ in the Redeemer cemetery, and they just kept coming. Some may have been headstones, but there’s no way of knowing without digging, Schirmer said.
“We are getting reflections in those areas, but the problem is it doesn’t tell you what that means,” Schirmer said. “It doesn’t show you what’s in the ground. It only shows you what’s weird.”
Part of Schirmer’s process in determining what is in fact below the surface will involve collecting data from areas without ‘hits’ as well as areas that the team knows for a fact have graves below them in an effort to calibrate their findings.
That process is just beginning, Burds said, because as soon as they map the cemetery that is roughly the size of a football field with the ground-penetrating radar providing a profile view of the ground, they will do a second, stacked mapping using a device that provides a vertical, sliced view.
Schirmer added that a series of tiny ‘hits’ they found could be a series of infant graves, but on May 30, it was too early to tell.
The Project’s Roots
Goulson flipped through records of some sort--the fact that they’re written in German means she can only give her best guess--from within her office at Redeemer. Her filing through those records marks an extension of a two-year effort to get a full-fledged archaeological investigation underway at the cemetery.
After some research and an exhaustive process of elimination, Goulson came across Dr. Ron Schirmer and Minnesota State University’s archaeology department. And all it took to get the ball rolling was a simple email she sent to him detailing the cemetery project with what could be missing headstones.
“He was very interested,” Goulson said.
The project and Schirmer’s expertise turned out to be a match made in heaven. Schirmer, Goulson stated, is dialed into the world of procuring grant funding for projects, so the project won’t cost Redeemer a dime. On top of that, students like Burds get credits, work samples...and a little cash to boot.
Between the weather and hectic schedules, it was difficult for the pieces to align, but in May of this year, Schirmer finally got a chance to see the cemetery to begin the archaeological investigation that he believes is still nascent. The ultimate goal, however, is to produce a map on top of an aerial photo the team captured that explains exactly which areas to use for future burials and which areas to avoid.
Goulson stated that she is grateful a serious team like Schirmer’s would be willing to take the time with Redeemer Lutheran’s project.
Goulson, who noted that there are likely family members of those buried in the cemetery currently living in New Prague, Belle Plaine, Le Sueur, and other area towns, acknowledged it will likely take a group effort to get a complete picture of the cemetery, even after the archaeologists finish their work.
“We don’t need to do this alone. We just wanted to get the ball rolling,” Goulson said. “I would love to see this become a community effort.”