In this post I would like to write about a fascinating article I read in ArcUser Magazine. The article can be found here:

This article describes a four year effort by an interdisciplinary team to find the potter’s field of the Herrin Massacre. The 1922 massacre, which occurred in Herrin, Illinois, was the result of a labor dispute involving unionized mine workers, non-unionized mine workers, and armed guards. According to the article, in 1922 the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) went on strike, during which W.J. Lester, owner of the Southern Illinois Coal Company, hired non-union miners and armed guards in order to resume mining operations. This led to an attack by UMWA members on the armed guards and non-union miners, with a total of 23 men killed in the massacre. The locations of the bodies of those killed was forgotten, but when Steven Di Naso, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) scientist, and Scott Doody, a historian, decided to create an interdisciplinary team to find the bodies using GIS technology, it was not long before they made some incredible discoveries.

The team began this endeavor by using an old, hand-drawn paper map of the cemetery to build a GIS model. In order to add to this model, the team needed to compile accurate historical data. They collected and reviewed interment records, news articles, cemetery records, county recorder’s office records, and period photographs. Such resources offered geographic clues and supported hypotheses of location. The team knew that conceptual designs do not always correspond to reality, and this was the case they encountered. To fix this, they used a high-definition, high-accuracy, long-range 3D scanner to scan the topography, headstone outlines, and imagery extrapolated from millions of cloud points. They were able to process this information with ArcGIS 3D Analyst and visualize it with ArcScene. This process also suggested locations of unmarked burial sites by showing slight changes in slope and drawing attention to small surface depressions. The team also collected precise GPS coordinates for the headstones and took photographs to go along with them.

With a much more dynamic and accurate GIS model, the team was ready to use it to look for the likely burial sites of the Herrin Massacre victims. The cemetery was organized into blocks based on records, and a heat map was overlaid on the blocks to illustrate interment history. The earliest interments, in 1905, were in blocks near the center of the cemetery, and as they were not of interest, they were mostly colored violet and blue. As time passed, the interments spread to further out blocks, radiating from the cemetery’s center. The spaces with interments in 1922 were red, as they were the areas of interest. What the team discovered was that all but block 15 followed the radial pattern. Block 15 was used irregularly and its interments dispersed. Such a phenomenon is characteristic of a potter’s field, which is what the team was looking for. Based on their data, the team marked two likely burial areas for the victims within block 15.

The Herrin City Cemetery spatiotemporal model created by the team. Block 15 represents the potter's field.

The Herrin City Cemetery spatiotemporal model created by the team. Block 15 represents the potter’s field.

The team began excavations in November 2013, and they found 8 of the 12 unidentified victims from the massacre. They plan to continue excavations this summer. The graves of these victims were successfully located with GIScience and ArcGIS. The team was able to integrate thousands of historical records and other forms of data into an ArcGIS model in order to accomplish their objective. ArcGIS allowed them to process and visualize this data, which was key to finding the bodies. Such a process has great potential for human rights, where multiple forms of data can be analyzed and visualized in order to get a clear picture of the situation and allow for effective decision-making. New forms of data that could be integrated into such a model concerning human rights abuses could be social media posts of protesters and oppressed civilians, and satellite images of human rights abuses occurring. Di Naso and Doody’s team have shown the world what the power of teamwork, dedication, and GIS can accomplish.


Di Naso, Steven M., and Scott Doody. “Finding the Victims of the Herrin

Massacre.” ArcUser Spring 2014: 64-69. Print.