How to tell if this is a person's grave

There’s a recently opened nature preserve near me where I’ve been hiking. I found a spot that looks like a person is buried there. There is a roughly rectangular depression sunken into the ground, maybe 7’ long and 3’ wide, and a flattish field stone set on edge at one end of the rectangle. The stone is leaning against a tree, so it’s between the trunk and the rectangle. The stone looks natural in shape, not carved, and it has no markings I can see.

The tree is an oak, a white oak I think. This spot is the top of a very tidy round hill. There’s a ring of pines concentric about the oak, the ring maybe 50’ in diameter, and another ring of pines concentric around them, maybe 70’ in diameter. Then there’s a concentric circular trail perhaps 300’ in diameter, brush and scrubby trees around them, another concentric circular trail perhaps 350’ in diameter, more brush and scrubby trees, and yet another concentric circular trail perhaps 400’ in diameter. These trails are all level but at slightly different altitudes as this bullseye is centered on this round hill. There’s grass, well established, as if tended for many years.

Not all the rings make full circles. The pines make full circles but the trails only make it about halfway around. Still, in aerial photos, it looks striking and is obviously very deliberate, and must have taken years of effort to create.

I studied historic aerial photographs and found that the pines were not there in 1969 (it was a smooth plowed field, probably a hay field) and were small in 1981. The oak didn’t appear until 2005 or 2008, but I think it has to be older than that because of its size, so I wonder if it was transplanted there when a few years old.

USGS maps often call out otherwise forgotten graveyards, but note nothing special here.

This is on my list of things to learn more about, should I get the chance to talk to one of the preserve’s stewards. But in the meantime, what else could I do to figure this out?

It’s here:

Honestly, one might suspect that a crime victim was secretly buried there and so one might report this to the police. They may have no idea about this and as a result, dig up the site. Or perhaps there’s some master database of natural burial sites that they can consult to see that this was done under authority.

As a first step, it’s less likely that it gets dug up than it gets checked out, maybe they run a cadaver dog by the site or use ground penetrating radar to see if there’s anything that looks interesting under there. If you don’t have a handy cadaver dog or radar rig, probably the best you could do, absent taking a shovel to it, would be to run a metal detector over the area, see if anything pops up. Most people have metal fillings and a body might have metal buttons or jewelry that would register on the detector. I’d say just get a real accurate location pin on the site and report it to whatever governmental entity has charge of the site–it’s fairly likely if the site has been like that a while it’s been reported already and looked at.

Well, this whole thing looks kind of like some monument, to me. I’m sure it’s been noticed. A family had this as their estate for decades, and then it was transferred to a preservation society that publishes a trail map online. One of their blazed trails follows the middle trail ring. And they’re mowing the site, including mowing over the “grave” and around the “headstone”. So, I can’t imagine that the police would treat its reporting as a surprise that would merit investigation.

Here’s the trail map:

See how there’s a nearly complete “B” formed by the pink trail? This ring structure is concentric in the bottom half of the “B”.

If I were going to commit some crime that put somebody in a grave, I wouldn’t construct a two acre bullseye over it and put the map online.

I agree it looks very planned but given that it’s a nature preserve now I would assume if there’s a gravesite there, something that is actually pretty common in areas with old farms, that they’d have disinterred any remains and moved them to a graveyard before turning the public loose on the site. Now, if there HAD been a known gravesite there, and they DID move the remains then I’d think that would be a pretty good spot to put a murder victim into because why would they look when they already moved the body? The one they knew about, anyway. :wink:

I seem to recall a method for looking for graves that involved pushing a long (~6’) rod into the site. If a body and /or coffin is there it might be detected as a sudden increase or decrease in resistance to pushing the rod in. Obviously this is not definitive, but if the suspected grave gave consistent results over a reasonable area and several tests, cops might get interested. Not sure if there are legal issues with this approach.

Nothing noted on

Ah! Yes! It’s called a “tile probe”, and I’ve used it for something industrial. Maybe I can do that.

I may be asking the obvious, but since the area is marked as the Glenroy Preserve, have you inquired with the organization who runs the place if they know what it is?

Things that suggest its not a grave:

  • A shallow depression near big trees is most likely to have once been a big tree - a tree throw. The absence of an oak in the 1980s might be a clue - if rectangular possibly a mechanical grub hole to remove a stump.

  • Usually digging a hole and filling up again creates a surplus of soil, not a depression. Slumping happens most when the air volume contained in a coffin gets breached and collapses inwards, as in formal cemeteries.

  • Ploughing would have destroyed the definition of any depression very quickly.

  • In the realm of all possible things it could be, graves for humans is well down the list of things that happen naturally and which we usually don’t notice until we see a single arresting example [pareidolia].

Things that suggest it is a grave:

Some things to seriously think about before you proceed

This isn’t your property - you have no rights to enter, exploring for imagined dead people. If you suspect a crime - tell the police.

Exploring for or interfering in something that could be a potential recent burial is probably illegal under criminal and possibly health / coronial statutes.

If it is an archaeological site, why is an an amateur with no idea of what they are doing being let loose on it? If it is something, will you have destroyed most of the evidence? [hint - yes probably].

Probing is very hard work and doesn’t always provide coherent results even for professionals. Plus also it counts as a smoking gun for interfering in private property / a possible burial / archaeological site.

If it had to be addressed professionally, the first thing would be a comprehensive record search, then a field survey to confirm it wasn’t just a typical ground feature in that country, then remote sensing [not a metal detector - I bury all my victims nude and remove their fillings] to show the depth of any disturbance in underlying strata. Only if all of these things did not rule out a human burial would you bother thinking to open it up.

I am fascinated by this idea. Or by the idea that you could possibly shove a rod 6’ into the soil. Where i live (New England) you would hit rock, usually in less than 1’.

Like I said in my OP, “This is on my list of things to learn more about, should I get the chance to talk to one of the preserve’s stewards.”

But this area has been smooth since 1950, except for the tree that’s there now. And it was being plowed until the present tree appeared.

Slumping is what I observe there. So, isn’t this a reason to wonder if it’s a grave?

Well, but, I do have a right to enter. They advertise it as a public space and encourage people to enter and explore. And one of their trails leads right to this bullseye area and wraps around it.

I don’t. This ornate landscaping reminds me more of the Great Pyramids than it does evidence of a crime.

Some of my ancestors from about 5 generations back are buried in what is now woods surrounding utility infrastructure in western Pennsylvania. It was amazing to follow directions from a local historical society file item, a yellowed handwritten note, and discover their graves, now with huge trees growing right through them. What I wonder about is whether this is something like that.

Yep and, if it is Jimmy Hoffa, you’ll be famous! :slight_smile:

Similar thoughts were running through my head during the opening/closing to First Cow.

A right to enter doesn’t necessarily mean a right to excavate. You are not the owner. I agree with the recommendation that maybe first you should go talk with whatever preservation society owns or manages this property.

ETA: And you might consider the park rules, located here:

Particularly the part about “metal detecting, prospecting, digging, or fly drones.”

If you really want to know, hire a search and rescue person with a cadaver dog. They can detect human remains that are decades, even sometimes centuries old.

I was vaguely curious as to whether maybe one of the late family patriarchs (the family that seems to own the preserve) was buried there. Looking into the family history took a very strange turn (not related to the site itself, so no details unless the OP wants them—probably nothing to do with the site itself, but one of the family members ended up in the local news in a bad way about ten years ago).

Yeah - here in the midwest - clay.

Someone referred to it as a tile probe, which makes me suspect it might be suggested for detecting tile which had been buried on cultivated land. This vid suggests the ability do so (absent rock) is related to the plants/crops that have been grown on the land in question.

O my yes, please!

I do want to emphasize that I have no plan to excavate, probe, do metal detecting, hunt for or move artifacts, or anything like that.

The kind of thing I was hoping for was for example “check the National Register of Creepy Places which registers all graves not in cemeteries” or “look for pink moss on the tree” or “if it was pointing due north it was probably a (fill in blank)”.

Wow! How do you folks bury anybody? Everything must be above ground like New Orleans? Here in the south (piedmont) if you walk through the woods in some places the ground can collapse under you and you wind up knee deep in an unmarked grave. Happens in areas with abandoned graveyards that forest has taken back.

I see a topless reclining woman.