Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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Burial by the Sea: Historical Burial Ground excavation in Newfoundland

From 2016 – 2017, I was involved in a project to excavate a settler burial ground in Foxtrap, Newfoundland. The excavation was run by Dr. Vaughan Grimes and Maria Lear of the Archaeology Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and is under an active archaeological permit through the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO) of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador throughout post-excavation analysis. A handful of graduate students, including myself, made up the rest of the field crew.

Based on local knowledge and the PAO investigation of the site in 2006, we were already aware that there was likely a burial ground at this location, based on the several erect and laying markers and fragments of gravestone with inscribed text. While no single record appears to exist for who was buried at this site, and it only had one gravestone with inscriptions on it, the identities of most of the individuals interred there will likely remain a mystery (and that one gravestone was broken and out of situ so we have no idea whose grave it belongs to). Plans are already afoot to re-inter the remains nearby once they have been cleaned and studied.

I am honoured to have been part of the team exhuming this site, as it was the first full historical settler burial ground to be excavated in the province, and so much about early populations could (and will) be learned from those who were buried there.
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Burial Ground Conservation – Do’s & Don’ts

Nov19_2Hello readers! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written anything on here, but don’t let that make you think I’ve not been working away in heritage, no sir! In fact, since I last posted on, I graduated with my MA (focus on Historical Archaeology), moved to Ontario, and started a new job as a Cultural Heritage Specialist. Need a heritage building assessed, or a burial ground examined (or conservation plans for either)? Give me a shout!

Now that I’ve mentioned burial grounds (because what kind of death & archaeology blog would this be if that wasn’t what I was talking about), I wanted to discuss something that comes up a lot when discussing burial sites, historic or modern, with members of the public: Conservation in the burial ground. By that I mean practices that will help preserve the integrity and survival of the site, but also for the gravestones themselves as an important aspect of the space and a document about those buried in it.
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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.
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Community Mortuary Archaeology & Folklore – New Perlican, Newfoundland

This Saturday I was invited to speak at and participate in a community heritage & folklore event in the town of New Perlican, Newfoundland. New Perlican is located on the eastern coast of the Avalon Peninsula, and has dated back to the 17th-century through records such as the 1675 Berry Census and archaeological evidence of a ‘plantation’ in the area. It is suspected that several of John Guy’s settlers from the 1610 Cupid’s Plantation may have settled in New Perlican in the early 17th century, but there has yet to be any physical evidence of that move identified.

The event I was involved with was a collaboration between the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Heritage New Perlican, and involved something really that I’m pretty passionate about…burial grounds! Students and community volunteers would join us for the day to learn about the history burial places in this historic town, hear about the town’s history from members of the Heritage group, meet the cemetery cleaning ‘Goats of New Perlican’, and help the community clean up one of their most historic burial spaces. I was there as an additional help supervising the students, to answer questions on burials and gravestones (and have some awesome conversations about headstone preservation with local folks!), and to give a talk about my research as a historic mortuary archaeologist. Also, to map a bunch of gravestones!
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Podcast alert: Go Dig a Hole!

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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.

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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.

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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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