Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

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‘These are grave terms’ – terminology in historic mortuary archaeology (for colonial North America)

First of all, I’d like to start by acknowledging that my last post was two weeks ago and my reason for not posting more frequently is: a) the job hunt, and b) I have been madly finishing a paper and my thesis..which was submitted yesterday officially! Yay!

I thought it would be nice, and relevant to do a post today discussing terminology for burial spaces and monuments. The terms I’d like to go over have some history to them of course, but like anything, they can take on different meaning depending on who is using them and where they are in the world. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m looking exclusively at colonial North America because that is my current study area, and dealing with basically only British/Irish, Christian (Catholic/Anglican/Quaker/Puritan,etc) burial spaces at this point. (I’m looking forward to seeing how these change as I go back in time a bit for PhD research in a few years)


Hartford, CT burial ground, facing the later-added church. Photo by author, 2015

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Inscribed Letters & Protective Marks – The Case of the W


Pitkin headstone, 1694 (vandalized), Hartford, CT. Note the VV style W. Photo by author, 2016.

Inscribed text is something that I’ve been passionate about studying ever since my first field school as a little baby undergraduate student. Recording gravestones in a rainy July in Ireland, I pieced together fragments of words that no one had read out loud for decades and recorded them onto my forms, creating a record once more for a nearly-erased gravestone. In doing so, I became fascinated by the way that letter forms evolved and were adapted through history, from inscribed letters in stone, to calligraphy, to typeface for printing presses which has become our digital text today!

Several years ago I conducted a project funded by the P.U.R.E Grants through the University of Calgary to explore the way in which letters erode from the face of gravestones, during which I spent a lot of time sitting in the rain with my waterproof notebooks, drawing letters using a hash-line system I developed to represent different stages of erosion. It’s a whole thing. The paper which resulted from this project is currently in peer-review, and I wanted discuss in part, one of the aspects of the project in conjunction with my recent interest in ritual protection marks. In this case, the letter W, and their use in inscriptions and as protective markings.

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Podcast alert: Go Dig a Hole!


Not too long ago (but while I was on holiday and didn’t have time to post about it) I was invited by Christopher Sims to appear on his awesome archaeology podcast ‘Go Dig a Hole!’.

We chatted about my work on burial landscapes, this blog, and the use of social media in archaeology and heritage, which I obviously will champion until the very end! I had a load of fun with the interview, and if you are interested in listening to the podcast please click:

—–> HERE (audio) <—-> or HERE (for the blog post & audio) <——

I’ve really been enjoying getting involved in different forms of media, with podcasts and radio interviews happening lately, as I feel like it’s a good way to ease into giving even more talks in the future. Throughout my academic career I’ve always been pretty nervous about public speaking to the point that I dropped a class in my undergrad to avoid giving a short presentation every class as the syllabus suggested we might have to do. That’s not a good way of growing as a researcher though, if you want your research to be disseminated in as many ways as possible!

When I got to grad school, I decided that no matter how scary it might be, I needed to push myself to speak in public more, whether that be breaking into a seminar conversation, accepting a guest lecture request, volunteering to talk at a heritage site AGM, or giving my first overseas’ conference presentation. All that *facing your Fears* stuff is working, you guys! I did all those things in the past year or so! Podcasts and the radio are part of it, so thank you to everyone who has listened to me go on about burials in whatever form of media you found me through, it’s been such a journey on social media recently and its been great!

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Robyn’s Guide to Master’s Thesis Writing, or, How I Scheduled Everything.


The victorious, tired grad student!

This is my first post in about a month, so I thought I’d start by updating you all about what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks!

Basically, I finished my thesis draft in the two weeks after my fieldwork was completed (and the last post was written). Guys, I did it, I wrote my thesis!!

I added in the rest of the fieldwork information, updated references and formatting, and wrote all of the discussion and conclusion sections before sending it over to my supervisor for the rest of the edits. When I got the edits back, I made the changes, got everything prepped, and sent it off as a PDF in it’s final form. My thesis is out for review now, you guys! It’s been in review for a few weeks now, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it comes back to me soon!

As my friend Steph Halmhofer just did a post about how she put her thesis together, I was inspired to do the same. Everyone has different and interesting ways of approaching a project the size of a masters thesis and it’s always interesting to see their processes! I wanted to share mine, along with any advice from my experience that might be useful for future grad students.

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Tales from the Trenches: Ferryland Week 4, 2017. The Final Push

Well here we are, the final week of my Masters excavation! The title of this post may say week 4, but including last year’s dig this would be week 10. Week 10! For a Masters, I believe that is a bit more time spent digging than was necessary for the degree, but in terms of pursuing the questions I was asking… maybe it wasn’t enough time?
We’ll have to wait and see! We got up to quite a bit at Ferryland this week, and I spent part of the week gathering my thoughts about the research, the end of a major part of my project, and what conclusions we can draw from the results.


I’m standing up in this photo! The trench got a little deep towards the end of the week. Photo by Ian Petty, 2017.

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Tales from the Trenches: Ferryland Week 3, 2017

Here we are, 3/4 weeks complete for the 2017 field season!
Cumulatively, this makes my 9th week excavating at Ferryland in search of the 17th-century burials. Lets go over what we uncovered this passed week, and then I’d like to talk about visitors to public archaeology sites and what we know so far about the burial ground!


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Tales from the Trenches: Fieldwork Week 2, 2017 (or, why does this keep happening?)

Halfway through through the fieldwork season, and I already cannot believe the amount of earth we’ve moved in pursuit of the burial ground! It’s amazing, thank you to the week 1 & 2 crews for all the hard work you put in, I couldn’t have gotten this far without all of you (and your digging hands)!

It was an amazing week over all, so lets dive right in to what we got up to at Ferryland last week:


17th-century building rubble from the brewhouse dismantling. We found lots of early-mid-17th-century objects between the fallen stones, as well as rich organic soil, charcoal, burned bones, and other organic material. Photo by author, 2017.

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