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Anthropology students step outside the classroom to map Middleburg cemetery

spring 2012 rakita

The library is the typical spot for undergrads to escape the bustle and racket of college life and focus on their work.


A few University of North Florida anthropology students have found an even more secluded location to chip away at their research. It’s a place so quiet that the only souls around haven’t made a noise in decades.


Three UNF anthropolgy seniors — Genevieve Day, Rissia Garcia, and Karen Lowery — have been mapping the layout of the cemetery attached to the historic United Methodist Church in Middleburg for the past few months under the supervision of their faculty adviser, Dr. Gordon Rakita.


The cemetery has been in use since the 1860s, and the students have been working to paint a clearer picture of the grounds, which encompass about 670 occupied and 300 unfilled burial plots.


To accomplish their goal, they’ve studied headstone orientation, analyzed patterns in child burials and used advanced equipment, such as ground-penetrating radar, to properly map the grounds for an accurate depiction of how the cemetery has grown over the centuries.  

Like any good hands-on learning opportuntiy presented by the University, this is workwork the students would definitively want to put on a grad-school application or job resume.


“I think these experiences are exactly the sorts of things potential employers or graduate school programs are looking for in candidates,” Rakita said. “If you were going to hire someone or admit them into your academic program, you would want to make sure they would be able to actually do the things they’ll need to do to be successful.  It’s one thing to have an undergraduate degree listed on your resume — it’s another thing entirely when you have a grant proposal, publication, or field experience listed.  Those sorts of things are going to move a candidate to the top of the list.”


Rakita said the idea for the project sprang from UNF’s involvement and reputation in the Northeast Florida community. The church, an idyllic, white single-steepled building nestled in a corner off Main Street, has long catered to the burial needs of the local community. But the passage of time had made it difficult to accurately map the grounds.


Church caretaker Sandra Wilson said they wanted to ensure they didn’t encroach on any occupied plots when planning new burials.


“We knew the University would have the equipment to help us out,” Wilson said, as she probed the leaf-matted cemetery ground with a long, thin metal rod used to detect subterranean anomalies. “They can be more precise than we can be with this stick.”


Rakita answered their call for assistance and worked with his students to turn the community exercise into a full-fledged research project.

This experience will be invaluable resume fodder to the undergrads who made the effort — and the drive — for the past few months.


“One of the wonderful things about working in the community is that students get to see how the things they learn inside the classroom can actually be applied to real-world problems,” he said. “ When the students are out in the cemetery, they are surrounded by real-world examples.  As they explore those examples and try to make sense of the things we’re seeing, they often have to integrate our more theoretical classroom discussions with those real-world experiences.  This is often when students have “ah ha!” moments.”


Day said she’s enjoyed the hands-on learning opportunity presented by the research. She was especially excited to use the surveying technology in a real-world setting.


“That’s how you can really learn skills that will help you later on down the road,” she said. “You can learn about it in class, but it really helps to go out there and do it.”


The showpiece of their research has been the ground-penetrating radar, a piece of equipment that uses radar pulses to depict the subterranean world. The images it presents are detailed, and it doesn’t disturb anything underground, making it a perfect tool for professional anthropologists who want to keep their research intact.


They’ve also used equipment familiar to many survey crews. Day and Garcia took turns using the stadia rod and a total station tripod to measure distances across the cemetery.


Once they’re finished, their research will present an accurate map of the cemetery grounds down to the yard.


“We want to be as close as possible,” Garcia said. “It seems like a lot of work, and there’s some trial-and-error, but it’s really enjoyable.”


Wilson said she’s overjoyed about all the assistance she’s received from UNF and is happy to chip in on the work when she can. She even brought Rakita and his students individually wrapped pieces of dark chocloate as they toiled away one afternoon.


“They’ve helped so much,” Wilson said. “They’re really great ambassadors for the University.”