Looking for the Lost and Forgotten in Hillsborough County

The All People’s Cemetery in Hillsborough County as seen from 22nd street


If you walked by the Hillsborough County All People’s Cemetery today, you may think that no one has been buried in the large, gated green space. Look a little bit closer, and you might notice numbered stones cemented together to make the entrance gate walls. These stones, once placed across the cemetery, used to serve as grave markers for the people laid to rest here. This place was home to those whose circumstances did not provide many options in death. These men, women, and children were mostly poor and their graves were marked with simple numbered stones meant to correspond to records of their names. These records were unfortunately lost in a fire and over time headstones of the no less than 800 people buried here were moved, broken, or covered over with soil, leaving these final resting places unmarked and forgotten.


View of the All People’s Cemetery entrance gate walls. Numbered cement stones that once served as grave markers were used to create these walls.


Many of the grave markers were moved or covered up over time. Recent work has relocated some but many markers remain lost or misplaced.

For years the All People’s Cemetery remained in this dilapidated state, until 2009 when Hillsborough County asked a number of University of South Florida (USF) professors to come out to investigate the area. Through their work, a number of buried grave markers were gently uncovered and the road to restoring this piece of Tampa history began.

In more recent years, local historian Ray Reed and other volunteers with the Northeast Seminole Heights Neighborhood Watch (Grid 45) started researching the cemetery. They combed through countless records at local funeral homes to gather information on the people buried at the cemetery. This extensive research resulted in a database of the deceased and a map of their expected grave locations. Thanks to this effort, we now know that numerous graves belong to babies under a year old and that many of their grave markers were used in the walls flanking the entrance gate.


Local historian Ray Reed and other volunteers have done extensive archival research to compile a history of the cemetery. This research has also allowed Reed to create a map of possible grave locations, complete with names of some of the deceased.

Though Reed and his colleagues’ archival research has provided insight into many forgotten aspects of the All People’s Cemetery, the group knew that research could only take them so far. They obtained Hillsborough County support and have since recovered a number of lost burial markers at the cemetery. However, there is only so much gentle field work that can be done to uncover the markers without being disrespectful and disturbing the graves. This led Reed to contact University of South Florida (USF) historians and archaeologists for help. Technological advances in archaeological methods now allow for investigation without ever disturbing the ground. USF Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Thomas Pluckhahn agreed to assist Reed and his group. Dr. Pluckhahn suggested that Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Gradiometer surveys may be able to identify the number and locations of graves across the cemetery without having to dig.


The first step of doing a GPR or Gradiometer survey is laying out a grid over the area you want to test. Here, Jeff Moates assists USF graduate students as they lay out meter measuring tapes to make grids at the All People’s Cemetery.

In September of last year, Pluckhahn and a few USF Anthropology graduate students went out to the cemetery to do the first survey with the GPR and Gradiometer. They laid out a 20 x 15 meter grid along the eastern edge of the cemetery within which they would use both the GPR and gradiometer. This area of the cemetery was a great place for Dr. Pluckhahn to start out the survey because it contains two rows of concrete markers and would provide a good baseline of what known and unknown graves would look like in the GPR and gradiometer results. From the results of this first survey (an image of the results can be seen below), Dr. Pluckhahn discovered not only what he believes is a buried pipe, but more interestingly the potential for three more rows of unmarked graves to the west of the two marked rows within his grid. The results also show that the anomalies (potential graves) are shifted more north than the concrete markers that are meant to mark grave locations.


GPR detects changes in density and soil compaction beneath the ground surface that might have been caused by human activities. This means that it can detect dense objects underground such as coffins. GPR works by emitting electromagnetic waves into the ground, and is completely non-destructive. When a wave hits something like a buried object or change in soil, it bounces back to the receiving antennae on the GPR unit and is recorded by an onboard computer. Here, Dr. Pluckhahn and his graduate students set up and run the GPR within a grid at the cemetery.



These are the results from Dr. Pluckhahn’s first GPR and Gradiometer survey at the All People’s Cemetery in September of this year. These images are showing the cemetery as seen from above looking down toward the ground. The lighter color areas in each GPR image are “anomalies”, or stuff that is denser than the surrounding soil.

On October 8th, I got the chance to observe Dr. Pluckhahn, Dr. Diane Wallman (Assistant Professor in the USF Department of Anthropology), USF graduate students, and fellow FPANers Director Jeff Moates and Brittany Yabczanka Vojnovic as they continued their survey of the cemetery. They set up three more grids, one just north of the grid from the first survey date and two in the northern half of the cemetery just to the north of the old shell path that ran through the center. On top of running the GPR and Gradiometer, the group also used a probe in meter increments in the area of the original grid. Probing with a thin metal rod helps to ground truth what was found in the first GPR and Gradiometer survey without being overtly destructive to the landscape. If the ground probe hits something in the ground, a flag is placed in the ground to mark the spot.


Gradiometer uses magnetism to detect metal in the ground. Working in a cemetery, a gradiometer can help archaeologists detect metal coffin pieces and nails or clothing elements like belt buckles or metal snaps or buttons. Dr. Pluckhahn and his students calibrate the Gradiometer and walk the same grid from the GPR survey.

The results of this second survey are still being processed but will definitely provide useful information about the All People’s Cemetery. It will be interesting to see how the non-destructive survey results match up with what Ray Reed and his group have uncovered in historical records. This project is attempting to answer a number of as yet unanswered questions. How many people were buried here? Where are their graves located? Who were they? As this project continues the collaboration between Hillsborough County, local historians, and USF faculty and students will hopefully answer some of these questions and bring recognition back to this place where the lost and forgotten rest.

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Interview with an Archaeologist: Dr. John Arthur

By: Kassie Kemp

In honor of Florida Archaeology Month and this year’s theme, Artisans of the Woodland, I visited one of the most famous Woodland Period (1000 BC to AD 1000) archaeological sites in Florida, the Weedon Island site. Dr. John Arthur, a professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) and incoming President of the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education (AWIARE), is conducting a multi-year research project at the Weedon Island Preserve in St Petersburg, FL. This project includes excavations along with the help of graduate students from USF Tampa and USFSP undergraduate students. I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Arthur and his students and discuss all things archaeology and Weedon Island during one of their excavation days. Check out the interview with Dr. Arthur below to see what I learned!


Question: How did you get into archaeology?

Dr. Arthur: I took a World Prehistory course at the University of Texas at Austin and realized my passion for archaeology and to try to understand people’s history.



USFSP undergraduate students Wendy Edwards (left) and Ryan Berger (middle) excavate in a 1×1 meter square unit alongside FPAN’s own Brittany Yabczanka Vojnovic (right). They are digging with the number one tool of an archaeologist, the trowel. Using a trowel allows archaeologists to dig slowly and carefully and keep the unit’s walls nice and straight!


What about Florida archaeology made you want to work here?

My primary research is in Ethiopia but my archaeological career began in the American Southwest so I have always had an interest in North American archaeology. Since I can’t take all my students from USFSP to Ethiopia, I decided to develop an archaeological method and theory course where students could work on an actual site and the Weedon Island site was a perfect place.



USF graduate students Kendal Jackson (left) and Christine Bergmann (right) aid USFSP undergraduate students Ryan Berger (middle left) and Wendy Edwards (middle right) in measuring the depth of an excavation unit. To check how deep they dug, the students pull a string with a line level to a measuring tape and record the depth of that corner of the unit. It is important to take depth measurements often so that all the stages of excavation are well recorded.


Why is Weedon Island an important site and how is it connected to the rest of the Southeast?

The site is the type-site for the Weeden Island culture, but my research and AWIARE’s research are the first to undertake systematic research at the site. Many parts of the site have been destroyed by past activities but there are many areas of the site that have not been investigated. Questions still persist, such as was the site occupied at different times, then abandoned, and then reoccupied? In fact, the area where we are excavating is actually dating to after the Weeden Island time period, around 1000 A.D., which is interesting since this is the same time that the canoe dates to that was recently restored by AWIARE and is on exhibit at the Weedon Island Cultural Center (learn more about the Center by clicking here).  We hope to eventually understand the cultural changes that were occurring at the site and compare our findings to other sites from around the Southeast.


What are you doing out at the site?

We are teaching students how to do all the basic methodological aspects of field archaeology from outlining a 1 x 1 meter unit, excavating and screening, to recording what they find. Since the bulk of what we are finding are shells, we are trying to learn how the Indigenous people were managing their environment in terms of where they were getting their food from and the behavior related to a hunting and gathering way of life. We are also looking at the spatial analyses of how they were organizing the site and their households. There is also a team of students who have been involved in an experimental analysis looking at how to tell calories from the Melogena corona (crown conch) shell species by collecting modern shells and comparing them to the archaeological shells. This has important ramifications for developing models of Indigenous populations and foraging behavior.



As archaeologists dig, it is important to look for changes in the color, texture, and makeup of the soil. These changes occur because of natural activity, like a flood, or human activity, like someone throwing away lots of oyster shells or cooking their dinner. Archaeologists use these soil changes to help us to understand what people were doing in the past. As you can see in the picture of an excavation unit above, the arrow is pointing to an area with much darker soil than the light soil around it. Why is it darker? This area may be darker because it was a place where someone cooked their food over a thousand years ago or it may have even been a wooden post in the ground that deteriorated and left a stain. Dr. Arthur and his students will have to study the soil changes in more detail to try to determine what the dark spot is. In the image on the right, USF graduate student Liz Southard and USFSP undergraduate student Ian Johnston use a Munsell Soil Color Book to determine what color the darker soil is and record it for future research.


What do you hope to learn?

Combining the archaeological and experimental research, we hope to learn how the Indigenous people living at the site were engaged with their environment, how they were living from day to day, and how the ecology of the region has changed over the last 1000 years.



One of the most important methods in archaeology for recording information while in the field is drawing. As archaeologists dig and gather information, they are also unfortunately destroying the area where they are digging. That is why taking pictures and drawing all of the stuff they see as they dig down is very important. USF graduate student Sean West (left) assists USFSP undergraduate students in drawing the floor of an excavation unit at Weedon Island. He is laying a drawing template over the unit to help make sure that the drawing is accurate.


These are some examples of artifacts that Dr. Arthur and his students have uncovered at Weedon Island. Left: A crown conch shell hammer. You can see where the Native Americans drilled holes to attach this shell to a piece of wood to make a shell tool. Top Right: This artifact is a small piece of broken pottery called a pottery sherd. If you look closely you can see that it is stamped with a design that looks like a waffle! Bottom Right: A stone flake leftover from making stone tools. This piece of chert, a type of stone good for making stone tools, came off of a rock while a Native American was making a stone tool such as a projectile point or knife.


How will what you learn inform us about the people who once lived there?

Our project is an archaeological project that is also influenced by marine biology so we hope that by learning how the estuaries were being utilized by the Indigenous people, that we can see how they have changed over the last 1000 years. Pinellas County is the most densely populated county in Florida, and to have a site where we can learn how people were utilizing the natural resources 900 years before the county was beginning to be severely developed can inform us about environmental change. In addition, with the rising sea levels from climate change, we can learn how the Indigenous people coped with changing sea levels which may give us clues as to how to manage our modern coastlines.


You are still in the middle of this research, so what is your next step in the project?

We will continue to investigate the life ways of the Indigenous peoples and to teach future archaeologists how to properly excavate a site. My goal is to have students develop their own independent research, such as the experimental research mentioned above, to learn how to do scientific research, and for the students to eventually publish their work. There are many questions to answer and we are just beginning.



Dr. Arthur (far right) gives a tour to the public out to the area of Weedon Island where he is excavating.


For more information on Weedon Island click here. To find FPAN events at Weedon Island click here. If you would like to get involved in archaeology around the St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay area please follow this link.

Kassie is an archaeologist working at the West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, located at the University of South Florida in Tampa. If you have questions about archaeology in the Tampa Bay area, please contact her at kkemp@usf.edu .

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FPAN West Central Winter 2016 Newsletter

To check out the latest edition of the FPAN West Central Newsletter click this link: FPAN West Central Winter Newsletter


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