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Dickinson College student help map cemetery near historic church site

MOUNT HOLLY SPRINGS, CUMBERLAND COUNTY, P.A. --- The Cumberland County Historical Society and the Heart and Soul Project are trying to preserve the Mount Tabor Church site, including a cemetery where its founder, Elias parker, lays.

Parker founded the church alongside a black community following the end of the U.S. Civil War.

However, historians and residents aren’t sure just how many people are buried in the cemetery because there aren’t many markings or headstones to be seen.

Enter Ground Penetrating Radar, or GPR.

Dr. Jorden Hayes, an assistant professor in the Earth Sciences Department at Dickinson College, said it sends radio signals underground to read what's below the surface.

"You might think of it like if we're standing here on the surface, you're standing on top of a cake...Like a layered cake," said Dr. Hayes.

She said the image they receive is the layers beneath the surface of the ground.

What they're looking for is a disturbance in the signal, for example a dug up grave or a coffin.

"We don't have the resolution to see individual bodies or anything like that. We're not looking for that, what we're looking for is anomalies that would potentially indicate a burial site," said Dr. Hayes.

She said they expect to determine the depth of the cemetery in about a month or two.

Then, Dr. Lindsay Varner with the Cumberland County Historical Society said they can begin to give it real recognition as burial site.

"Once we have the fence in, we can start doing historical interpretation, putting some signs up so people know why is this cemetery here? Why is this church here? Understand a little bit more about the African-American community," said Dr. Varner.

For Dr. Hayes' Environmental Geophysics, she said the work proves their studies are more than equations on a whiteboard.

"They're things that apply, they matter to real people," said Dr. Hayes.

"[I'm] really grateful that they've welcomed us into this space of theirs where their family is buried," said Dickinson College Junior Pentti Hanlon.

Larry Foster, the great-grandson of Elias Parker, said he believes without this help, the history could've been lost, forever.

"[It's] incredible to me to know that they can preserve and carry it on and people can come and take a look at what's here in Mount Holly Springs," said Foster.

The group also did pilot lines, or survey work, between Larry Foster's property and the Mount Tabor Church.

Foster and other residents who remember the church when it was open believe there is a graveyard there, as well, that's since been covered by the woods.

Based on what the Dickinson College students find, Dr. Hayes said it could lead to a more in-depth GPR analysis like the cemetery.