Saturday, 15 July 2006

Cemetery soils: A window on the past?.

Samuel B. Geleta, Christopher H. Briand, Kimberly C. Clark, Michael E. Folkoff, Irene K. Miller, and Brent J. Zaprowski. Salisbury University, 1101 Camden Ave., Salisbury, MD 21801

The Coastal Plain of the Mid-Atlantic region has undergone dramatic changes in the last few centuries. Early colonial descriptions indicate rich soils suitable for agriculture as evidenced by the rapid deforestation for cultivation. Over the past ca 350 years there has been considerable soil erosion and degradation due mainly to deforestation, intensive agriculture (especially tobacco farming) and poor if any soil conservation practices. Other than cursory written descriptions, little is truly known of the soils present at the time of European colonization. Cemeteries on the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland provide potentially valuable markers for measuring anthropomorphic induced changes. Common practice has been to locate graveyards on higher ground, typically on summits of ridges, near family farmsteads. Over time, and as land tenure changed, new owners respected family cemeteries by not disturbing the graves. They also continued cultivating the property, leaving many of these features as isolated, remnant knolls elevated above the surrounding fields. These cemeteries may give us a window on the past, providing remnants of earlier soils. Four cemeteries were sampled in Wicomico Co., Maryland. They were between 1.0 and 2.3 m above the surrounding fields; indicating considerable soil erosion. Composite soil samples were collected from the cemetery and at two locations in each field. The soil samples were collected to a depth of 60 cm, at 20 cm intervals. Cemetery soils generally exhibited lower pH, higher organic matter, and lower levels of phosphorus than the surrounding farm fields. Potassium, calcium and magnesium levels did not consistently vary between the cemeteries and the surrounding fields, while sulfur levels showed little variation. Organic matter, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium levels tended to decline with increasing soil depth, while pH, potassium and sulfur levels showed no consistent pattern related to soil depth. Our results are consistent with our hypothesis that land clearance and farming practices have considerably altered soil chemistry and structure.

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