Sheila Benedict wants to know where all the bodies are buried.
Last week she got some help from Asha, 2, Jasper and Piper, both 6, and 8-year-old Bailey.
She’s getting more help this week from a high-tech assistant known as GPR.
Benedict is a professional genealogist and the archivist at Old Mission Santa Inés, where she keeps track of the historical facts and artifacts, including the mission’s “burial books,” and oversees the displays in the museum.
Her most recent endeavor is to determine the number and location of the burials at the mission, a project for which she received two grants totaling $10,825 last year.
The project got underway last week with the arrival of three members of the Institute for Canine Forensics and their dogs, who can detect the scent of a human body deep in the ground, even if it’s been there for centuries.
On a construction site in the Czech Republic, the dog of a former institute member found graves that were dated to 450 A.D.
Sniffing out graves
Burials at the mission are believed to have started around 1805 with an infant Chumash girl named Cajetana.
“The burials here stopped in the late 1930s,” Benedict said, as she watched Lynne Engelbert’s border collie Piper search the field just north of the mission’s cemetery wall.
“I’ve counted 1,995 names,” she said, referring to the mission’s burial books. “Some were unidentifiable. In some cases there was not much of a name.”
Benedict said 1,700 of those buried at the mission are members of the Chumash tribe, 240 are unknown and the remainder are priests and early settlers.
Yet less than 200 of those final resting places have markers, and many of the ones that do exist are simply wooden crosses that were erected later or tombstones with nothing written on them to identify who lies below.
So her quest to find them all began with a two-day search by the forensic canines and will continue this week with a survey by Lewis Somers of Geoscan Research USA using ground-penetrating radar, or GPR.
“I wanted the dogs to come in first,” Benedict said. “That will give Dr. Somers some places to concentrate on.”
Working individually, the dogs were in almost constant motion with their noses to the ground until they found the most likely site of human remains. They would alert by lying down or, in the case of Bailey, simply sitting.
“The nose is this incredible organ,” explained Adela Morris, who founded the Institute for Canine Forensics some 30 years ago. “We’re fine tuning it to the scent we want.”
Smelling a marathon
The scent they want is that of human decomposition — from as little as a bone or a tooth — which makes its way up through the soil.
It’s a different scent than that of the “fresh dead” sought out by the so-called cadaver dogs of law enforcement, said Barbara Pence, the third member of the team, which is more like three sisters than co-workers.
As Piper hurried back and forth across a relatively small patch of ground a few yards from the cemetery wall, Pence said the dog had picked up scent from that general area and was trying to narrow it down.
“The nose is vacuuming the top of the ground,” Morris said. “Scent comes up through the ground in the easiest possible way. If there’s ground squirrel activity, the scent follows the ground squirrel holes. The dogs just tell us where the strongest scent is.”
Piper suddenly laid down. Engelbert patted her head and praised her. Then she inserted a colored flag on a wire into the ground and, with a wave of her hand, sent Piper off to continue the search.
“She’s getting tired,” Engelbert said, as the dog moved off a bit slower than before.
“It’s like an athlete,” Morris said. “This is an athlete. Their nose is a muscle. … This is very exhausting for them because of the (low) amount of scent. They’re working their nose, their level of concentration — they’re like running a marathon.”
Eventually, the dogs found 22 possible unmarked graves just outside the cemetery wall, plus one Morris referred to as an “anomaly” all the way across the field near Mission Drive.
“We do have that one alert way out there,” she said. “But you have thousands of years of Native American occupancy. All it takes is one bone for them to alert.”
The dogs found even more possible sites inside the cemetery. Oddly enough, most of them were not where grave markers were located.
“What’s interesting to me is all the graves along the sides,” Morris said. “They’re not interested in those. Why? There are mysteries out here.”
Inside the church itself, the dogs located the sites where five priests are known to be buried beneath the heavy floor tiles near the altar.
“The one I’m really excited about is the one they found in the confessional,” Benedict said, explaining that at one time, before the confessional was there, a plaque on the wall identified someone buried there.
But when the confessional was built, the plaque was removed and either thrown away or lost, which Benedict finds a source of aggravation.
“She was alleged to have been a Yokut Indian named Pasquala, but that’s just a rumor,” she said. “I guess we’ll never know.”
At the south end of the mission, a remnant of the 19th arch still stands, a testament to the destructive power of an earthquake that destroyed the rest.
Benedict said a woman was supposedly buried there, so the dogs were sent to investigate. Both Bailey and Piper alerted at the arch, but Jasper and Asha did not.
“When we train them, we don’t expect them to be perfect,” said Morris, who handles Jasper. “We train them to 75 percent.”
While the dogs may not be perfect, the job is, as far as Morris is concerned.
“I’m outside with my dog and my good friends,” she said. “We go places and see things. What better job can there be?”