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‘These places are worth protecting’: Public invited to help document burial sites at Arbutus library workshop

A new program launched by the Maryland Department of Transportation is soliciting the help of community members to identify, document and preserve local cemeteries and burial sites.

The transportation department’s State Highway Administration is partnering with the nonprofit Preservation Maryland to host workshops across the state, educating the public about cemetery documentation through an app developed by SHA to collect and store data on local cemeteries.

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Baltimore County’s Arbutus Library branch is hosting a free workshop Saturday, Dec. 7, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to educate attendees on the documentation project and garner interest for those who want to participate.

“One of the ways we’re trying to be good stewards of our past, but also do the right thing, is to make sure we know where all cemeteries are along our [state] right of ways, including those that are kept up and those that are forgotten about,” said Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist and assistant division chief for SHA’s Cultural Resources Section.

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“Unfortunately, a lot of our highways over the years have inadvertently impacted cemeteries,” many of which have historically been created along “old colonial routes,” Schablitsky said.

SHA’s Cultural Resources division is tasked with considering the impact of state road projects on archaeological and cultural resources.

But with limited manpower and funding for burial site documentation, Schablitsky said “the best way to get ahead of this is to rely on the power of the people and crowdsource it — they’re gonna know their neighborhoods, they’re gonna know their counties” and where unmarked or undocumented burial sites may be located.

Cultural Resources had $75,000 to start its pilot project this year, holding five workshops throughout the state and beta-testing the app by having an archaeologist use it to survey 100 cemeteries near or within Maryland Department of Transportation rights of way that were previously unrecorded or abandoned.

The archaeologist, Caroline Herritt, will speak at the Arbutus library about her findings.

The app records the location and size of the cemetery, the number of headstones if the burial site is marked, and assesses the site’s general condition, said Elly Cowan, director of advocacy at Preservation Maryland, which protects historic resources and advocates for historic preservation policy at the local, state and federal levels.

“All of those data pins are going to be added to an additional layer in SHA’s statewide GIS mapping tool,” Cowan said.

For SHA’s planners, “they want to know where these places are located so when they’re planning new roads and expansion, they don’t come across a burial site accidentally,” Cowan said.

SHA tries “to design around [historic] places, especially cemeteries,” Schablitsky said.

The agency’s archeologists perform ground surveys and refer to historic documents and maps to identify burial sites potentially impacted by development, “but sometimes you don’t always find them,” she said. “Maybe there’s no markers, or maybe the information just exists [through] oral history.”

Currently, there is no statewide database containing validated burial site records, Cowan said. The responsibility of creating an inventory of burial sites often falls to local governments through historic zoning ordinances that may also give certain protections to cemeteries.

In Baltimore County, protections are given to cemeteries on Baltimore County’s Landmarks Preservation Commission list.

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“Getting these cemeteries documented is the first step to protecting them,” Cowan said. “You have to know what’s there before you can start preserving it.

“We really think these places are worth protecting,” she said.

Cemeteries are one of the most at-risk historical resources, Cowan said. Even when not threatened by development, neglect or lost to memory, burial sites can be imperiled by sea level rise in Maryland, where some of the oldest colonial settlements were established along coastlines, Cowan said.

In Baltimore, “we’ve seen recently a number of issues with cemeteries coming up against development,” Cowan said, noting a controversial plan to develop homes on the site of a small 19th century-era Christopher Cemetery in northeast Baltimore’s Westfield neighborhood.

The details of the documentation process are still being fine-tuned, Schablitsky said. Those who attend the workshop will hear an overview of the app, powered by Survey123 for ArcGIS. The first round of informational sessions gives potential users a chance to offer feedback and identify the app’s potential challenges, Schablitsky said.

The sessions will help SHA identify community leaders to serve as gatekeepers to facilitate sending the project data. When the program rolls out next year, those who sign up during the session will receive applications for a Survey123 account to send information directly to SHA, Schablitsky said.

Those who can’t attend workshops this season will have another chance during the second round of sessions in the spring when those dates are announced, or can email questions to her at jschablitsky@mdot.maryland.gov, Schablitsky said.

The Maryland Historical Trust will maintain the data collected from the public through the app, Schablitsky said.

The data will also be shared with local governments and historic stewardship organizations to promote the preservation of local burial sites when it comes to county planning and cemetery upkeep, Cowan said.

Cowan said the workshop is open to anyone with an interest in history, preservation or genealogy.

Schablitsky was “shocked at the interest and the commitment of the community” to help record burial sites, and the high attendance at the documentation workshops so far.

“I knew people were interested, but this really shows there’s a huge need for communities in the state for this tool,” she said.

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