four people in a cemetery with a flying drone

Stephanie Spera, assistant professor of geography and environment at UR, flies a drone at the East End Cemetery. She's joined by fellow researchers Ryan K. Smith, VCU history professor; Beth Zizzamia, GIS manager for the Spatial Analysis Lab; and photographer Brian Palmer, at right.

UR team uses drones to reclaim historic African American cemetery

April 18, 2022


Stephanie Spera, an assistant professor of geography and the environment, Beth Zizzamia, GIS operations manager for the Spatial Analysis Lab, and Matthew Franklin, class of 2019 and now a GIS specialist with Timmons Group, were among a team that developed a simpler, cheaper way to use drone technology and standard geospatial mapping software to find long-lost gravesites.

The team used the technology and software to potentially identify more than half of the total sites of the East End Cemetery, an historic African American resting place straddling Richmond and Henrico County. An estimated 15,000 people are buried at the cemetery, but many graves have been lost to time.

Their research was detailed in a recent article in the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. The researchers say their novel and low-cost process could potentially be replicated across the South to help reclaim historically underfunded Black cemeteries.

An association of leading Black citizens founded the cemetery in 1897 amid the constraints of a tightly segregated society. The cemetery never received public funding for upkeep and suffered from financial setbacks and lack of perpetual care. The toll was evident, with graves obscured by tangled vines, towering trees, and illegally dumped trash. Some sites were never marked.

To date, just over 3,300 marked graves have been found by the Friends of East End Cemetery, a volunteer group.

The new approach has helped identify at least another 8,000 possible gravesites. The drone can create a 3D model of the earth’s surface. A GIS technique enabled the researchers to map where water would pool up in the depressions of the vegetation-covered landscape, which suggested burial sites.

Spera said Franklin, then a student in her environmental remote sensing class, came up with the idea as part of a final class project to figure out a way to automate the mapping of aerial depressions.

“This has been a really amazing joint collaborative project among Friends of the East End Cemetery, the University of Richmond, and VCU,” she said, adding the team hopes to expand the effort to Richmond’s Woodland and Barton Heights cemeteries.

“This is really important work, trying to determine if an area is a burial site and what’s under the earth without disturbing what’s there,” Spera said. The voices of those in lost graves “have been buried for too long.”