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USF, Florida Public Archaeology Network partner with City of Tampa to survey city’s oldest cemetery

USF Department of Anthropology and USF-affiliated Florida Public Archaeology Network have partnered with the City of Tampa to generate a comprehensive survey of historic Oaklawn Cemetery.

Thomas Pluckhahn, PhD, archaeologist and associate professor for USF Department of Anthropology, shows the readings from the ground-penetrating radar being used to identify potential unmarked graves during a press conference at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tampa. Fredrick Coleman | USF News

USF faculty announced a new map-generating project at Oaklawn Cemetery, Tampa’s oldest cemetery, to reveal unmarked grave sites using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) technology during a March 24 press conference.

“Tampa has a lot of rich history, but it’s buried beneath the streets,” said Thomas Pluckhahn, PhD, associate professor and archaeologist for USF’s Department of Anthropology.

The map generated by the USF team will help strengthen the city’s case when they nominate the cemetery as a national historic landmark, which would make it eligible for federal grants to repair damage caused by age, weather, and vandalism.

The process of generating a comprehensive map of what lies above and below the hallowed grounds of the 167-year old cemetery is expected to take approximately two months. The team will map the existing 1,500 marked graves and use readings from the ground-penetrating radar and magnetic field detector to identify potential unmarked graves that could number in the dozens, according to Jeff Moates, the west central regional director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN).

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn received a demonstration of how the ground-penetrating radar machine works from USF's Thomas Pluckhahn, PhD, following a press conference at Oaklawn Cemetery.  Fredrick Coleman | USF News

The original map of the cemetery was lost following the Civil War.The three-acre cemetery is the final resting place for some of Tampa’s earliest residents and pioneers including Joseph Lancaster, Tampa's first mayor, and Vincente Martinez-Ybor, founder of Ybor City. It is one of the few sites nationwide with slave owners buried next to their slaves.

The cemetery also contains two mass graves. One is the final resting place more than 100 soldiers and pioneers at Fort Brooke, which was abandoned before Oaklawn was dedicated. The second holds the remains of more than 80 victims buried in the wake of the yellow fever outbreak between 1853 and 1887.

FPAN operates visible public outreach programs including promotion of archaeological or heritage tourism, and partners with Anthropological Society chapters and other regional heritage organizations, according to network website The organization supports local governments in their efforts to preserve and protect regional archaeological resources to include advising local governments on the best management practices for city- and county-owned archaeological sites.

Shaun West, a 2016 USF graduate of Applied Anthropology and Archaeology, explains to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn how the magnetic field detector works.  Fredrick Coleman | USF News

FPAN was asked to take part mapping the cemetery in collaboration with private organizations and several City of Tampa departments, including Parks and Recreation. When the City of Tampa determined the need for an overall assessment, Moates suggested the USF Department of Anthropology get involved since they have the tools and faculty to complete the survey.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who attended the press conference at Oaklawn, had a chance to see how the ground-penetrating technology works. Mayor Buckhorn has always supported USF’s community involvement.

“It’s fascinating to see the technology. I’ve compared it to a fish-finder on a boat, just much more sophisticated. But, for a project like this, it’s invaluable,” said Buckhorn, following his test drive of the GPR. “USF has always been a great partner for us. We get a hometown university helping their home city at a rate that we probably couldn’t get in the private sector. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Oaklawn Cemetery is located at 606 E. Harrison St., Tampa, FL 33602.

Story and Photos by Fredrick J. Coleman

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