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Preservation advocates demonstrate high-tech tools at historic cemetery near Helena

Posted at 8:56 AM, Sep 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-27 11:11:39-04

HELENA — A historic cemetery north of Helena played host to a high-tech demonstration on Thursday.

More than a dozen people traveled to the Silver City Cemetery and watched as Ethan Ryan, an archaeologist and ground-penetrating radar specialist, showed how radar can reveal possible unmarked graves.

The equipment Ryan used included a radar unit, attached to a wheel. As it rolls over the ground, it fires a pulse down. A receiver then records how long it takes for the signal to return.

Using computer analysis, Ryan can identify patterns that point to what might be below the surface – disturbed soil that could indicate digging, the wood of a coffin, or water accumulating in the bottom of a casket.

The demonstration was part of a workshop on preserving historic cemeteries, organized for the Montana Historical Society’s annual Montana History Conference.

Ryan didn’t discover any additional graves during his short checks on Thursday, but Lewis and Clark County heritage preservation officer Pam Attardo said it would be interesting to do more radar work at the cemetery.

“It’s obviously something that will take a while, it’s not a quick project, but it would be neat to be able to get him out here for a few days – this is about an acre – to look at some of the older things and see if what looks like a grave actually is a grave,” she said.

The Silver City Cemetery dates back to the 1860s. The area’s first settlers were fur traders, living near Silver Creek and the Mullan Road. Once mining began in the area, Silver City became the first county seat of Edgerton County, later renamed to Lewis and Clark County.

Some descendants of early Silver City families are still being buried in the cemetery. “It’s very important,” Attardo said. “This was a piece of our history.”

Attardo said the cemetery is now one of the last surviving remnants of Silver City. She is currently working to nominate it for the National Register of Historic Places. Her proposal will go before the Montana State Historic Preservation Review Board in January.

Volunteers have been hard at work to get the cemetery into better condition. They recently put together historically accurate reproductions for the rotting front gate and wooden fencing around several graves. The Montana History Foundation provided a grant to help pay for the work.

Attardo said the next steps will be repairing some metal fencing, restoring headstones that have broken or tipped over, and filling in some sunken gravesites.

The Montana History Conference is continuing in Helena through Saturday.