Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

New Perlican: Blank Gravestones & Mapping

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Myself, mapping away on our plan of St. Mark’s! Photo by Ian Petty

Yesterday I headed back to New Perlican with Ian Petty (2nd year MA student in Archaeology at MUN) to meet up with Dr. Shannon Lewis-Simpson from Memorial University of Newfoundland in order to continue with the surveying of the St. Mark’s historic burial ground. The weather was not ideal and I was hard-pressed to remember if we’d used a plastic drafting film or normal paper to draw the map on in the first place, so with rain in the forecast our fingers were crossed!

I wanted to go get as much of the burial ground mapped as possible before the rain set in…and before I had to start my new job! There will be more details on that major life change later though, this post is still about the burial ground in New Perlican.
Before we got down to actually doing some mapping, we took a walk around the site to look for any gravestones that we might have missed, try to get a sense of where the church might have used to sit (if it were indeed fairly close to the burial ground), and generally try to get a better understanding of the site as a whole.

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Shaped field stones mark graves, but bear no inscriptions. 

As you may have been able to tell from my previous post, a lot of this burial ground’s gravestones are what we call ‘field stones’, or grave markers made from locally sourced stones that may or may not have been shaped into what we’d call a stereotypical gravestone shape, and may or more likely may not have any inscriptions on them at all. Using field stones for marking a grave is very typical in early burial grounds on the Avalon Peninsula, as imported gravestones were very expensive and therefore reserved for those who could burden the expense, or beginning in the early 19th century, were carved in St. John’s but still were very costly compared to making a grave markers yourself.

It is often common to see field stones as a footstone, with a more formal gravestone with inscriptions and sometimes imagery as the headstone. This is very common in many regions, but owing to the sheer number of field stones at St. Mark’s, I would be hesitant to call them all footstones. Many are in fact headstones without inscriptions still marking the graves of villagers who have long since died. It’s difficult to tell how old field stones are, especially without an inscription to give us clues through the text styles (or visible dates), but with the rise of more organized burial sites and gravestones becoming steadily more affordable, it is likely that field stones were used in the 18th to early 19th century in communities with long occupation periods, potentially longer in settlements which were founded in the 17th century by French and British settlers.

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Blank gravestone in Anglican Cemetery, New Perlican. The local stone has been shaped into a typical gravestone style, but bears no inscription. 

The use of blank stones marking graves signifies that not only was there an established burial landscape in this area, but that the people of New Perlican in the 18th and 19th centuries felt that the graves of their loved ones needed to be marked in some manner, any manner. Stones without inscription could suggest a population with high illiteracy rates, or that no one had the expertise to carve the lettering (or the family couldn’t afford an inscription), or that the markers were a reminder to the family and friends of the deceased that the grave was here for visiting rather than to inform future visitors of who exactly was buried there. The fact that the grave is marked indicates that that aspect of the burial landscape was important, regardless of a family’s economic situation. I find gravestones without inscriptions fascinating!

It turned out that the paper we used for the map, while being a type of drafting paper, was less water resistant than I’d originally hoped…so the afternoon rain coupled with the temp. turning a bit too cold to be glove-less in (which really doesn’t work when you need your fingers for drawing and counting tiny squares), we ended up wrapping up the day at about 2:30pm. That being said, 135 gravestones have now been mapped at the St. Mark’s burial ground! No small task, there are so many field stones buried in the grass still (but digging them up is a not a great idea for preservation, more on that shortly). The 135 stones mapped make up the bottom 1/3 or so of the site, so there is still quite a lot of work to be done there, but with the community project and heritage group having done a lot of surface clearing along with our students from MUN the other day, the site is looking wonderful!

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The current map. All the little squiggles under the gravestone (blobs) are numbers. These numbers will be added to gravestone recording forms in order to make sure we know what record goes with which stone, and where that stone is in the burial ground. 

In terms of burial ground preservation: historic burial sites are a valuable asset to archaeologists and historians in learning about the population of an area, how they lived and died, their faith, professions, and families, and every step must be taken to ensure the ongoing preservation of these sites across the province and across the country. I’ll be doing a post in the next week on the up-to-date practices on preserving historic burial ground and gravestones, as well as best practices for recording and documenting gravestones and their inscriptions. I hope you’ll all join me to discuss this important and exciting topic!

The rest of the recording is going to have to be done by someone other than me, however, because I’m about to move to Ontario for my new position as Cultural Heritage Specialist with Golder Associates Ltd., and I could not be more excited! Don’t worry, burial archaeology is still in the mix and I’ll be bringing you some interesting posts in the near future!

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Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Illustrator.

2 thoughts on “New Perlican: Blank Gravestones & Mapping

  1. So glad you guys got out this way again. I just posted a full comment and the system didn’t accept it for some reason. oh my. I don’t think there are even 135 names on our listing for St. Mark’s, but that is possible because of the record keeping back then. I too, would love to know where the church was. I hope you come back again before you take your new position in Ontario. Congratulations and thank you again for your work along with Shannon…….

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  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 15, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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