RIVERVIEW — The sands of time have not been kind to Samford Cemetery.
As highways, homes and shopping centers sprang up around the shady spot that dates to the 1800s, a community that once looked out for the dearly departed grew up, grew away and lost interest.
Vandals, weeds and, some say, a desire for profit took its place.
Today, old-timers struggle to mow the site on Cone Grove Road east of U.S. 301. Neighbors say hardly a day goes by without someone's car getting stuck in the powdery earth of a makeshift road that threads through a hodgepodge of headstones and crosses.
Descendants of local pioneers buried there say grave markers have disappeared. They worry that people have been buried in occupied ground. They say a former funeral director sold plots without authority and with little concern for prior burials.
Even monuments move in mysterious ways.
"I think Mr. Samford's gone walking again," said Edith Layton, 70, pointing to one of the graveyard's most eye-catching commemorations, a 5-foot-high stone tribute to Alexander Samford, the 19th century land baron for whom the cemetery is named.
Layton said she helped with cemetery cleanups as a child. She remembers the monument being closer to the center of the cemetery.
But now modern technology might come to the rescue. Archaeologists believe ground-penetrating radar will unearth some of the secrets in the cemetery sand, bringing solace to those who care about the dead and bolstering the case for designating the 1.5-acre patch of dirt a historic landmark.
Zaida Darley, outreach specialist with the state-supported Florida Public Archaeology Network, and students from the University of South Florida anthropology program spent Nov. 12 and 13 at the cemetery. Using information from Layton and Samford Cemetery Association president Sue Bunting of Wimauma, they laid out grids and wheeled a GPR unit over them. The unit shoots high-frequency pulses of energy into the ground in search of vaults and voids, providing evidence of burials.
The equipment identifies unusual disturbances in the soil, said Jana Futch, a USF graduate student overseeing the GPR study. Sometimes the shape of a coffin or vault is easy to make out on the computer screen. Often it is less clear what causes a change in the soil pattern below the ground surface.
On Monday, Darley said the GPR results revealed several anomalies that could be unmarked graves, including some beneath the road. Early next year, her organization will excavate a large area to look for discarded tombstones.
Local lore places the founding of the burial ground in the mid-1800s, even though the oldest intact headstone bears a date of 1884. A previous archaeology network survey tallied more than 300 marked internments. Longtime residents familiar with the cemetery believe there are more people buried there.
"We have enough information to show it should have landmark status," Darley said. "If not for moving the tombstones, it might have had enough to generate national (historic) status. … A lot of prominent families that helped shape Hillsborough County are buried here."
Those include Samuel Mays, one of the largest orange growers around the turn of the 19th century, in a time when the land on the Alafia River's south bank was known as Peru. Samford and Urban Bird, buried near each other, were Methodist ministers who helped establish some of the area's first churches.
A Hillsborough County historic landmark designation could provide protection from unauthorized burials and vandalism, Darley said. Ownership issues present a challenge, however. Part of the cemetery, including some of the oldest and most significant graves, sprawls on privately-owned land.
Darley said she also will seek excavation of an unauthorized grave marked by a crudely carved stone that reads, "Ivory Nicole McFarland." A Hillsborough County sheriff's investigation determined the grave holds a dog. Futch said the GPR showed a small disturbance of soil near the ground surface and something bigger below.
State and county officials have said Florida is riddled with small "orphan cemeteries," or burial grounds that don't meet the 5-acre threshold for state regulation. Darley said the archaeology network plans to investigate others in the area that may have archaeological significance.
Susan Green can be reached at hillsnews.org.