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Ground penetrating radar brought to 19th century burial site in Orient

Technology arrived at a 19th century burial ground in Orient on Saturday with the hope of answering a contentious question: could slaves owned by the Tuthill family be buried on this spot?

The technology to try and answer that question came in the form of an instrument that uses ground penetrating radar. The man who brought it, John A. Rayburn, a professor of environmental geology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is an expert in using it to answer old burial questions.

Picture Indiana Jones pushing something over the ground that looks like a lawnmower and you can imagine the scene at the south end of Narrow River Road on a beautiful fall morning on eastern Long Island, Hallocks Bay a stone’s throw away.

“I’ve used this to find a very old African cemetery in Kingston, New York, that had disappeared from the map,” Mr. Rayburn said as he set up his equipment. “We are going to look for areas where the soil is disturbed. The machine will shoot radio waves into the ground down to about nine meters [or almost 30 feet].”

Mr. Rayburn was hired by the Oysterponds Historical Society with the costs, approximately $2,500, picked up by a small group of longtime Orient residents — some whose families go back to the 17th century — who opposed the Society’s efforts to remove a longstanding marker at the site.

That marker said Seth and Maria Tuthill, who died in the mid 1800s, were buried there along with their “servants.” The Society took that sign down as part of an effort to find out what the small site actually represents and because “servants” didn’t accurately describe the institution of slavery.

Mr. Rayburn and his student assistant, Christine Saturno, set up the equipment and then laid out a grid system so that the data captured by the machine could later be transferred onto a 3D map.

Mr. Rayburn said the grid system is the kind archeologists use at dig sites. Then he explained to the small group in attendance — some of whom were kind enough to bring coffee on a chilly morning, along with donuts and sandwiches — how the radar system locates soil disturbances that could mark very old burial sites.

Once the grid was laid out on the ground with rope and little orange markers, Mr. Rayburn began pushing the machine, first south to north, then west to east. After about two hours of going over the small burial ground, which is enclosed with a stone wall, Mr. Rayburn announced to the group that there was nothing “obvious” on the machine that showed burial sites.

Nor was it obvious, he said, that there are burial sites in front of the handsome grave markers of Maria and Seth Tuthill. He cautioned that there are two different soil types at the site, one that sits atop the other, that could be fill brought in later to raise the area, and he said there were certainly areas below ground where the machine picked up clusters of stones and rocks.

But he was cautious to draw conclusions just yet. “It is hard for me to see if there are burials,” he said, adding that he would take the data gathered by the radar and download it into a more powerful computer he has at school.

Once he has that, he said, he would write up a report to send to the Society. As for the ground directly in front of Maria and Seth Tuthill’s stone markers, he said, “I don’t see the usual telltale signs” of burials.

After Mr. Rayburn’s announcement, Dick Leslie and Lyle Tuthill, both of whom opposed taking down the original marker, said they would take a wait-and-see approach before drawing any conclusions. To Mr. Tuthill, the site is more than a little personal: he is a direct descendant of the two Tuthills buried there.

Bob Hanlon, president of the society’s board of trustees, which voted to take down the original sign, said he would also wait.

“We will wait for the final report and decide what to do at that point,” he said.