BELLEVILLE — It may sound like a spooky task to the average New Jersey resident, but the township is just trying to get a better handle on its rich history.

With the help of scientists and experts at Rutgers, officials in Belleville are attempting to learn Thursday how many unmarked graves are lying near and beneath Dutch Reformed Church on Main Street.

"The tricky part is that part of the cemetery was left beneath an addition to the church in the late 1800s," said Francisco Artigas, director of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute at Rutgers-Newark.

The team is using "ground penetrating radar" both in the church's basement and the adjacent cemetery to detect changes in density beneath the surface soil.

"As you continue, patterns start to emerge," Artigas said. "One of the documents that may come out of this would be a very precise map indicating the locations of these unmarked graves."

According to those involved with the project, the cemetery behind and beneath the historic church contains the remains of at least 68 Revolutionary War soldiers.

Experts and the township believe a number of the unmarked graves at the site belong to Chinese immigrants; the township is said to be the site of the first "Chinatown" in America, and the site of the first Chinese New Year celebration on the East Coast.

Crediting Belleville's Historic Preservation Commission, Mayor Michael Melham said the township plans to commemorate the 150th anniversary of that celebration in January 2021.

"We've been really interested in the last year or so in digging deep — no pun intended — into our township's very rich history," Melham said. "Mostly all of it centers around that particular church."

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