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A potter's field foray

Experts bring life to unmarked graves

The double takes from passing cars are priceless. A quick look, a glimpse back at the road, then over again for a long, slow drink of water. Who wouldn't? There are nine people wandering around the potter's field on Long Island, home to paupers buried in unmarked graves over the centuries, like the crowd out of ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Some are holding the ends of three identical lengths of rope, each 38 meters long, laid out one meter apart from the others along the grass, extending across the width of the field. Then there is the mother of all measuring tapes marking off another 55 meters stretching the length of the expanse.

Stay with me now. A man pushing what looks from a distance like a lawn mower, or maybe a three-wheel baby carriage, is moving methodically back and forth across the grass, traveling directly over the strands of rope for guidance. As soon as he completes one length, two of the assembled munchkins grab it at either end and dash off in a manic game of leapfrog to reposition it for use again. In this manner, over two hours, the man gradually works his way through the entire gridiron.

What we've got here is Dan Welch, down from Geophysical Survey Systems in North Salem, N.H., with his ground-penetrating radar equipment to map the potter's field on this huge island in Boston Harbor.

He's out to define it and then document the location and number of the graves below.

Welch works with an antenna the size and shape of a car battery positioned close to the ground that routinely picks up anything 3 to 4 meters down.

With every pass, he gains another image on a monitor screen that resembles bad German expressionist art. He will enter this data into a computer and early this week produce a three-dimensional map that resembles an ultrasound image. Stay tuned.

Those of us ghoulishly hoping for outlines of skeletons will be disappointed, Welch explains, because GPR picks up neither bone nor wooden coffins that would have decomposed over the years, but rather the oblong outlines of the coffins, defined by changes in soil porosity and compaction.

It's a grand day for a potter's field foray. The sky is achingly blue, the air perfumed with bayberry and sweetbriar.

The view of Boston, alien to many, is spectacular. And there's a grand assemblage of history types along for the show.

Among the heavies, we've got Ellen Berkland, archeologist for the city of Boston (I didn't know we had one); Jack Warner, the state archivist; Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society; Bill Hickey, a retired mailman from Braintree who volunteered a huge amount of his time documenting medical records from the defunct institutions out there; and Mike Cunningham, a US Customs agent and historical sleuth who helped make this whole thing happen.

No one has a clue who's under the sod. Beyond the official 17 historical burial grounds in Boston, graveyards dot a number of harbor islands.

These outposts were repositories for the sick, insane, and criminal -- everyone, in short, the city didn't want parading down Commonwealth Avenue under the magnolias. Berkland says the people buried at Long Island alone number in the thousands.

Warner asks Welch if the paupers' bodies might be stacked on top of each other, as they are in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Doubtful, says Berkland, who cites ''the box boat" that brought coffins to and from the island in the 19th century.

Many of those buried at the potter's field succumbed to disease at the chronic care facilities on the island, but the full roster may extend from Native Americans confined on Deer Island around King Philip's War (1675-1676) to German and Italian POWs held at Castle Island in South Boston during World War II.

Berkland, who has been working on this project for a couple of years, hopes to match the graves with surviving records of the dead on Long Island and come up with names for a data base that will eventually be available to the public.

(The Observer was appalled to learn that Boston has had a city archeologist only since 1983, and that the position became a full-time slot a mere three years ago. Berkland's office is chronically starved for dough, so she relies heavily on volunteers and the kindness of strangers.)

Enter the redoubtable Bill Hickey, 77, who has given new meaning to the word, ''painstaking." A Civil War addict and reenactment buff, he went to Long Island to find the remains of a couple of veterans from that war and ended up spending more than a year entering some 9,000 names from Long Island hospital medical records, many of whom were buried elsewhere, onto Berkland's rolls. (''Seventy-four Thursdays," he says of his labor there every week.)

Hickey has this to say about his postal job: ''I tell people I was a government courier. It always mystifies them."

Welch offered his expensive services pro bono after reading an earlier story on Cunningham, who produced a meticulous monograph on the 79 Civil War soldiers reinterred on Long Island in 1948 from nearby Rainsford Island. One thing led to another and suddenly you have this marvelous mixed grill -- Cunningham, Berkland, Warner, Drummey, Hickey, Welch -- all dying to know who's in the dirt. Me, too.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is allis@globe.com.

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