It was over pasta with red sauce that Cailyn Arrington's college studies turned into an exploration of her own family's history.
Cailyn told her parents at dinner Tuesday night that her University of South Florida anthropology class was doing a research project Friday at an old cemetery on N 22nd Street.
At least 800 people were buried there in the 1950s and '60s. They were poor, unidentified or unclaimed by any family members when they died. Their gravestones had no names, just numbers.
So Cailyn's class, plus students studying geophysics, archaeology and history, planned to use high-tech research tools to map the site and try to find the graves.
"The potter's field on 22nd Street?" her mom asked.
"Your great-grandfather's buried there."
Friday morning, dozens of undergraduates, grad students and professors fanned out across the 2-acre cemetery.
Some used ground-penetrating radar. Some mapped the property with GPS technology. Others used magnetometers to search for anomalies in the soil.
Many simply probed the ground with thin survey flags, looking for buried headstones.
They found many, watching especially for No. 1164, which marked the grave of Cailyn's great-grandfather, Joviana Arias.
Arias was an immigrant from Spain who made good, said Cailyn and her grandfather, James Pardo. He said he learned the story from Arias's ex-wife, who is 99 and lives in Tampa.
Arias made good money supervising workers at an Ybor City cigar factory, married and fathered two children. He was well educated, well spoken and well dressed, a man with a presence at the Cuban Club and Centro Espanol.
But his life fell apart after he heard that his mother and siblings were machine-gunned to death in the Spanish Civil War.
"He just went off his rocker," Pardo said. He drank too much wine and lost his job. His marriage disintegrated, and his ex-wife remarried. The last time his family saw him he was bumming through the crowd at Gasparilla.
When he died, his ex-wife had neither the money nor desire to claim the body, Cailyn said, so he ended up in the potter's field.
Hillsborough County has owned the property, which is north of Hillsborough Avenue, since the early 1900s. It's known that it was used as a cemetery for indigent burials from October 1950 to December 1966.
But Chuck Matson, a Temple Terrace retiree who has spent years researching local cemeteries, said he's found records of a couple of others who might have been buried there, too, possibly even before World War I. A problem, he and others say, is that some county burial records might have been lost in a fire.
"Are there 800 people here?" wondered anthropologist Lori Collins, the research coordinator for USF's Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies, which organized Friday's work. "Are there 2,000 people here?"
Matson has culled a list of 796 burials from Florida Genealogical Society records that were, in turn, based on old Hillsborough County records.
The oldest person to be buried there was Esther Dudley, who died in 1954 at age 104, according to the records. The youngest was a baby boy who lived just 23 minutes in 1958. He is one of more than 160 infants, including five sets of twins, buried there.
"These people died with just numbers of where they were," Collins said. "Hopefully, with our work, we're restoring a sense of who these people were. They're not invisible anymore."
For the USF students, the work also was a chance to see what field research is really like.
Increasingly, archaeologists don't dig up sites, Collins said. "When you excavate something, you're actually destroying it."
"A lot of people think that all archaeologists do is go to Egypt and dig up tombs," said grad student Andrea Harper, who is working on a master's degree in history, with additional studies in archaeology.
"A lot of archaeology is this. It's trying to preserve what is now or may become important to a community."
Finding all the graves won't solve all the mysteries. Over the years, groundskeepers apparently piled up about 80 numbered grave markers in a corner of the cemetery to make it easier to mow. And based on the grave stones found in the cemetery Friday, it was hard to detect patterns in the burials.
Some markers in the 1100s were found, but not No. 1164, the grave of Joviana Arias.
Still, Cailyn Arrington was not discouraged. Simply hearing that her great-grandfather was buried there had given her goose bumps. So she was thrilled to help map the site and search for graves, at some points getting on her hands and knees to dig with her bare hands.
Arrington, 21, sees more of this work in her future. She is majoring in anthropology, wants to get a doctorate and go to work as a forensic anthropologist for the FBI. She can imagine getting engrossed in cases in the future, but not like this.
"I don't think anything like this will ever happen again," she said. "This is pretty intense."
ON THE WEB
See for yourself
To see the names and dates of death of about 800 people buried in the old Hillsborough County cemetery on N 22nd Street, go to Chuck Matson's Web site, www.hillsboroughcountycemeteries.com, and click on "Hillsborough County Indigent Burials." Those listed under "Hillsborough County" in the cemetery column were buried in the pauper's graveyard on 22nd Street, Matson said.