Vassar Today

Sounding Out the Dead

By Kimberly Adams ’09

An applied geophysics class, says geology professor Brian McAdoo, traditionally will use the tools of the trade — electrical resistivity meters, ground-penetrating radar, a cesium-vapor magnetometer — to map “things like buried pipes, electrical conduits, and leaky underground storage tanks.” As buried treasure goes, perhaps not the most exciting stuff in the world. But McAdoo’s version of the class, he says, is “a lot more fun” — and perhaps a lot more valuable to the community as well.

Professor McAdoo’s Race and Class in the Hudson Valley: Geophysical Investigations takes students out of the classroom and into the field to investigate the unmarked gravesites of slaves, free blacks, and marginalized communities. McAdoo was inspired to create the course after helping a colleague to teach a summer class, offered by Franklin and Marshall College, that assisted an archaeological dig on a Jamaican plantation; a few months after his return, he heard about the African Burial Ground project in lower Manhattan. “Prior to that, I was unaware of the extent of slavery in the Hudson Valley,” he says.

His class draws students from across the disciplines, who use historical archives as well as field work to put together a complete picture of the burial grounds under investigation. Past sites have included the Ulster County Poorhouse, the Dutchess County Poorhouse, and the St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park. Each project, McAdoo says, “has built on the previous.” The Stormville Slave Cemetery, for example, where in 2005 students “found evidence of up to 80 slave burials,” came out of “some of the press coverage” the class had received from its work on the county-poorhouse gravesites. Each semester culminates in a presentation of findings to the community, which constitutes the class’s final exam.

McAdoo’s other professional hat is that of a “tsunami scientist,” which has, unfortunately, kept him very busy in the past few years. “I’m praying for another lull in the tsunamis,” he says, “so that I can get back to the graveyards.”