Archaeologists join hunt for long-lost burials in historic cemetery
The tombstone of Pascual and Micaela Marquez is one of two burial markers left standing at the historic Marquez Family Cemetery in Santa Monica Canyon. Family stories indicate that 30 or more individuals are buried there. Photos by Shauna K. Mecartea.
On a sunny Friday afternoon in mid-January, archaeologists had a rare opportunity to become modern detectives as they began to solve a mystery at a Los Angeles historical landmark, the Pascual Marquez Family Cemetery in Santa Monica Canyon.
The cemetery is located on the 1839 Mexican Land Grant Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, a 6,656-acre tract of land that included Santa Monica Canyon, the
Pacific Palisades and parts of Topanga Canyon granted to Ysidro Reyes and Francisco Marquez. The Marquez and Reyes families were prominent citizens in early Los Angeles history — Francisco Reyes actually served as mayor from 1793 to 1795. A rich archive of documents and photos as well as family stories have long indicated that 30 or more individuals are buried at the cemetery. But the actual number of burials as well as their location have remained a mystery.
Today, the cemetery is in the middle of a residential neighborhood within the Los Angeles city limits, and only two tombstones are visible.
Last month, archaeologists and geophysicists joined forces with local historians and members of the Marquez and Reyes families to explore beneath the surface of the cemetery during a two-day workshop co-sponsored by UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and the La Señora Research Institute. Instead of using archaeological excavations to locate the burials, internationally recognized geophysicists Dean Goodman and Brian Damiata surveyed the cemetery with a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) without breaking the surface.
Typically these UCLA-affiliated researchers work on projects far across the globe, documenting the Royal Tombs of Japan, Genghis Khan’s Palace in Eastern Mongolia and the Villa of Trajan near Rome. However, this local project was special for both personal reasons and professional challenges.
“I feel so honored and so lucky to have participated in this project and to be a part of discovery at a very important cultural historical site that is right in our own backyard,” said Goodman, who grew up in Los Angeles.
The workshop began with an introduction to GPR techniques in the auditorium of the beautiful José Mojica Hacienda, which houses the main offices and grounds of the La Señora Research Institute located a block from the cemetery.
Brian Damiata, left, a research associate of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, watches as students scan the ground at the cemetery with Ground Penetrating Radar.
UCLA faculty, students from various local institutions and family members learned about the radar equipment and how it creates both two- and three-dimensional images of buried features. The radar antenna, a sturdy piece of equipment that is dragged along the surface, sends electromagnetic pulses into the ground that bounce back to a receiver, indicating both the nature of what is buried and how deeply it may be found.
In the afternoon, participants, joined by a visiting group of fourth graders from nearby Canyon Elementary School, had the opportunity to both collect data and learn how to interpret the results.
What did they find? According to Goodman, “the initial GPR surveys indicated that there were several anomalies recorded at the Marquez cemetery that correlated with family members’ recollections.”
The most exciting development of the afternoon came when Marquez descendent Joseph Peyton walked participants to the unmarked area he had been told was the location of the buried remains of his great-grandparents, Felipa Marquez and Eusebio Carrillo. That information clearly corresponded to likely burials recorded by the GPR.
“We appreciated all of the hours [Goodman and Damiata] provided to this project, and the identification of the significant information [they] determined through extraordinary analysis,” said Peyton, who was moved by the day’s events. “I personally appreciated that they were able to confirm the remains and the location of my great grandparents. Obviously, the crosses and many grave stones have long since disappeared, and [the researchers have] now provided us with the ability to never have to guess exactly where these family members were placed to rest.”
Other family members such as Ernest Marquez, the family historian and author of several books on early California, provided invaluable insights throughout the workshop that will guide future efforts.
Dean Goodman, a Cotsen Institute research associate, instructs a visiting fourth grade class on the technology being used to locate unmarked burials.
The workshop was only the first step in the process of reconstructing early Los Angeles history using people's recollections, historical documents and cutting-edge technologies. Goodman and Damiata will return to the cemetery on Feb. 26 to record the GPR lines at twice the resolution to help delineate some areas on the northern and eastern sides of the cemetery to locate a suspected mass grave for 13 family members who died of botulism from eating contaminated peaches at a New Year's party in 1913.
The initial results from the workshop indicate that the mass burial may be along and possibly under the northern wall, which was constructed many years after the burials were placed and the crosses and headstones were lost. The higher resolution data from the second GPR survey will help answer these remaining questions, as well as help locate smaller graves of infants reportedly buried at the site.
This project at the Pascual Marquez Family Cemetery is an exciting example of how science and history can work in combination to solve mysteries about the past. The co-sponsored workshop not only produced new data related to Los Angeles history, but also resulted in a very fruitful collaboration among the Cotsen Institute, La Señora Research Institute and the community that today occupies the area of the 1839 Mexican Land Grant Rancho Boca de Santa Monica.
For more information on the La Señora Research Institute, visit this website
. To learn more about the history of the cemetery, these pioneer families and view early historic photos from the area, go here