A mystery deep beneath the earth at an LA cemetery

One of the oldest graveyards in Los Angeles is Pioneer Cemetery.  Bodies were last interred there in 1939.  Years later, however, thieves stole a majority of the old headstones and the San Fernando Valley Historical Society has had the difficult task of figuring out who and how many settlers have been buried there.  I’ve been following  some of the progress made since last year. Recently, two headstones were returned (Daily News,  March 4, 2012).  One stone reads “Mother” and was brought back by a woman whose father stole the grave marker as a practical joke. The other belongs to Emily Prouty, born in  1841. Her headstone was brought back to the cemetery by a man who found the marker in a closet in a home he owned in Burbank.  When he sold the home, he left the stone, but always felt bad about it.  On the day he went to claim it, he saw saw the headstone at the curb with the trash.  It’s still unclear where the two stones go.  From one of my stories  (Daily News, April 2011):

SYLMAR-The dead buried deep beneath weeds and rock hard earth at Pioneer Memorial Cemetery lie in anonymity, their names forgotten and their headstones long gone at the hands of thieves and vandals.

For years, local historians wondered how many men, women and children were buried at the old Sylmar cemetery, where only 13 headstones remain and documents, mostly old and unreliable, indicate that more than 600 could have been interred there between 1889 and 1939.

A part of the mystery will be revealed tonight by geophysicist Brian Damiata, who used ground-penetrating radar to locate unmarked burials and graves. Damiata will present his findings at the Andres Pico Adobe Park.

“One of the things we’re trying to resolve is can we pinpoint where the actual graves are and where the stones are,” said Damiata, a Cotsen Fellow at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.

“There’s a lot of headstones up there, but are they in the right spot?,” Damiata said.

Damiata won’t reveal much of what he’s found until tonight’s presentation, but said the radar allowed him to see where the natural pattern of the soil had been disturbed by the presence of a grave.

In additional, Damiata went through archives and looked at old grave plot maps to create profiles cemetery. What he found dispelled at least one myth:

“The number of 600 burials has no foundation,” he said. “There are many legends about the cemetery, almost all of which have no basis. The 600 number is one of those… It was really picked out of thin air.”



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