UMW, Washington Heritage Museum team up to resolve grave concerns

by | Feb 19, 2024 | ALLFFP, Environmental, Fredericksburg, History

The device that could finally put to rest the question of where Mary Ball Washington was, well, put to rest, resembles a high-tech jogging stroller fused with a lawnmower. 

Just before 10 a.m. on Monday, Dr. Katherine Parker, an assistant professor of archeology at the University of Mary Washington, and Blake Bauer, a sophomore historic preservation major, double-checked angles and laid a new baseline with yellow measuring tape before Bauer walked a short distance across the lawn to fire up a ground-penetrating radar machine. 

Their work, which began earlier this month as a collaboration between the Washington Heritage Museum and UMW, hopes to pinpoint the exact spot within the property near Kenmore Park in Fredericksburg where the mother of the first U.S. President was buried.  

“Her original burial site was not marked, and when they put this monument in, they put it in an approximate spot,” Parker said of Mary Washington, who died in 1789. “But there’s some belief that that may not be where she is.” 

The obelisk familiar to current Fredericksburg residents, bordering the Gordon family cemetery, is actually a replacement monument. President Andrew Jackson attended the dedication for the original before the start of the Civil War, according to WHM board chair Chuck Fennell.

It didn’t survive the conflict.  

“Both sides decided it was pretty good to use for target practice, relic hunters came in and took a piece of it,” Fennell said. “It was really in disrepair.” 

The replacement monument, built with the help of local and national women’s groups, also included the construction of the adjacent caretaker’s lodge. Along the way, the original marble slab marking Mary Washington’s grave was lost.  

Each row the GPR covers (at a maximum speed of eight miles per hour) provides a flat, profile-like view of the ground beneath. Only when the various images—hundreds upon hundreds of lines—are stacked together using software in UMW’s archelogy lab does a three-dimensional image emerge. 

“If you think of it like a loaf of bread where you’ve got individual slices and put them together, you’ve got a loaf,” Parker said. “It’s almost as if we were virtually excavating the site without having to break ground.” 

Parker and her students plan to survey the entire property, which the city gifted to WHM in December 2022. UMW received its GPR devices last year, around the same time she joined the faculty. Similar technology has existed since the 1980s but only in the past decade has its application become more prevalent in archeology, she said.

The radar waves pulse through the ground and reflect off anything they encounter. Lighter waves, often shaped like parabolas, could indicate the presence of rubble or even a coffin, Parker said. 

Parker projects that her fieldwork will be wrapped up by mid-March, with the accompanying analysis finished in time for a May event for the 130th anniversary of the monument’s dedication. GPR surveys are contingent on weather, as rain or even wet ground will interfere with the signal. 

Two weeks into the project, the most compelling imagery has come from a portion of the grid bordering the walkway directly in front of the monument. 

“We’re seeing two really strong anomalies that are closer to what we’d expected or would be interested in with possible burials,” Parker said, “but it’s hard to say at this stage, until we look at it overhead.” 

Bauer recalled hanging out in UMW’s archeology lab last year when he overheard talk of the project. Now, he’s one of three students tasked with resolving some grave concerns in his own neighborhood. 

“It’s taking what so far in my college career has been classwork and classroom experience, and we’re actually applying it out in the field,” said Bauer, who is earning credits as part of an independent study under Parker. “I think it’s pretty cool to say that this is making history.” 

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