Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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Site Visit to Bloody Point, New Perlican, NL

Another summer, another field season! While I couldn’t really write much last summer in the field, because I was working in CRM in Ontario, this year I’m back in Newfoundland doing my own research. You know what that means…updates from the field, as far as the eye can see! I’m really looking forward to getting back to some research surveys rather than just digging test pits as fast as possible in the sun (as important as CRM is).

Today myself and my husband Ian joined my supervisor Dr. Shannon Lewis-Simpson in the outport community of New Perlican, in Trinity Bay. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might remember when I did work at one of the cemeteries in New Perlican in 2017 (you can find those posts HERE and HERE). Part of my dissertation research for PhD is looking at the development of the burial landscape in New Perlican, which has been settled by European settlers since the 17th century, and how those burial spaces changed in relation to the settlement and the churches through the centuries to today. Today’s trip, however, was just to visit the site of the Bloody Point cemetery…a site which we suspect could date to the 17th century!

Beautiful fishing stages in New Perlican harbour (photo by Ian Petty 2021)
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Cataloguing Funerals & Burials from Samuel Sewall’s 17th-Century Diary

Samuel Sewall (image from the New England Historical Society)

If you’ve been a reader for the last year or two, you’ll know that I’m currently working on my PhD in historical archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador! My research is looking at the development of the 17th-century burial landscape in northeast North America, and through the centuries in the outport community of New Perlican, NL. Part of this research involves combing through accounts from the 17th century for details on death, burial, and funeral practices at the time. This information gives us a better idea of how the burial grounds were being used, what people thought of them, and how they changed through the decades and centuries.

Now, I’m only 9 months into my program and have just finished my coursework a few weeks ago, so I don’t have too much of my own research finished yet, but other than lining up some fieldwork and preparing for my comprehensive exams this fall (eep!), I’ve been cataloguing mentions of burials and funerals in the diary of Samual Sewall. Judge Sewall, a public figure and later known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials of May, 1893 (for which he later publicly apologised, so that’s nice), kept a diary of his life fairly regularly from 1674 – 1729, one year before his death. Many Puritans kept detailed diaries and Sewall is no exception. Due to his importance in the community as an educated judge and printer, he was very aware of the community and recorded deaths beyond his own family.

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When Repairs Fail: Maurice Baker’s Gravestone

An unfortunate part of gravestone conservation and care is that sometimes it doesn’t always stand the test of time. This could be because the repair wasn’t strong enough, or the stone had been disturbed in some way after the repair took place. Perhaps it was bumped by a deer or a lawnmower, or someone leaned on the stone, or the ground shifted and gravity took over. Regardless of the reason, we can learn a lot about conservation and repair when the stone falls, and learn from the experience.

Today I want to talk about the repair and fall of one of the largest simple gravestones I’ve ever seen, that of Maurice Baker at Woodland Cemetery, London, Ontario.

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Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Juggler’s Cove Burial Site, Bay Roberts, NL

Hello again readers, we are back today with another ‘Curious Canadian Cemeteries’! But first, an update:The last few weeks have been hectic; I’ve finished my PhD coursework already somehow, and after a little break, I have begun to work through readings in preparation for my comprehensive exams (also known as comps) this fall, which will involve writing two papers and then orally defending them. I’ve also been preparing for fieldwork and writing some reports for Black Cat which is very exciting, alongside preparing for my research fieldwork this summer as well. All of this involves extra hoops in these ‘uNpReCiDeNtEd TiMeS’ (anyone else sick of hearing that yet?), but projects are nearly set up and I am really looking forward to crawling out from behind my desk sometime soon!

With that, let’s get into today’s cemetery: the Juggler’s Cove Burial Site, Bay Roberts, NL!

View of the Juggler’s Cove burial site and ocean beyond (photos by author 2021).
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You’ve gotta hand it to them: A Look at Limb Graves

Possible limb gravestone at Malew Churchyard, near Castletown, Isle of Man (photo by author, 2011).

Today’s post topic came to me in a dream. The other night I dreamt that I was doing a public education event somewhere, and that I was teaching kids about the grave of a man who lost his leg. Rather than giving the limb over to the doctors, he felt that this piece of himself deserved a proper burial, gravestone and all! I showed the kids a photo of the gravestone that had a strange wood umbrella behind it…and because this was a dream, I also had a cream highlighter stick that I would twist up and show the carved wood umbrella on the stick. Maybe it was branding? I’m not sure, it was a weird dream, but I woke up determined to tell you all about one of my favourite burial quirks: Limb Burials.

The idea of wanting to preserve or honour one’s amputated body parts, whether they were removed for one’s health or as the result of an act of violence, is not a new one. You may have heard of the woman a few years ago who had the bones from her own foot preserved and re-articulated after amputation? (There are human bones in that link, warning) That’s an extreme example, but very cool! The more common option was to have an actual burial, gravestone and all.

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Spade & the Grave x Archaeology Now: Tiny Lecture Series

Hello readers, I hope you are having a lovely weekend and first day of spring! Here in Newfoundland, the snow is still sticking around but I can see the walkway outside my door again, so we may be getting close to actual spring weather. As much as I like the winter, I am looking forward to not scraping the car off in the morning or struggling to clear a path to the door through snow that is already turning into ice blocks. Also, with warmer weather comes the hopeful inching closer of the field season (covid restrictions permitting). Everyone wear your masks and wash your hands, so my colleagues and I can stomp around graveyards and dig holes (not in the graveyards), please!

I haven’t had much to blog about recently, as I am in the last couple weeks of my PhD coursework! Hard to believe that this part of my degree program is nearly finished! I’ve been working on outlining the topics and questions for my comprehensive exams this semester, writing little sections on my manuscript every week, sprucing up the NLAS website (please go check us out!), and working on another little project that is soooo cool, but I can’t share yet! Get excited though, it’s going to rule.

A few weeks ago, however, I got the chance to work with ‘Archaeology Now‘! Archaeology Now is a:

Houston-based affiliate of a nationwide organization—the Archaeological Institute of America. [They] were founded in 1967 by Dominique De Menil, Philip Oliver Smith, and Walter Widrig. Today, we present an ambitious series of events for the public focused on our many stories through time. [Their mission is to] promotes awareness and appreciation of world cultures through archaeology.

I was invited to film an episode for their ‘Tiny Lecture Series’ for their youtube channel, about my book project on hexfoils and other protective symbols in a mortuary context for Berghahn Books. After a few trial runs with weird lighting, we made the video below, which I am super happy to share with you all. I hope you enjoy the finished lecture that I filmed in the middle of our entryroom / library, and know that between all takes, my cats were climbing the bookshelves, sitting on the chair with the tripod on it and making it all vibrate while scratching themselves, and yelling at me in confusing! Also, there are hexfoils!


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CBC Article: This archeologist has made it her life’s work to preserve decaying history in N.L.’s cemeteries

A handful of weeks ago, before the latest alert level 5 lockdown here in Newfoundland, I had the opportunity to meet with CBC contributor Andie Bulman to discuss my PhD research and our new little business, Black Cat Cemetery Preservation. It was wonderful to chat with her, and as any research knows, I loved the opportunity to talk about my research!

The article, which opens with an image of me working at Woodland Cemetery in London, Ontario in 2019, discusses my PhD research on burial grounds, concerns with gravestone conservation, and what we hope to accomplish with our (mine and my husband Ian’s) business. It’s a wonderful platform that I am so grateful to have, and I hope the message gets spread far and wide!

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PhD in a Pandemic: The First Few Months

It’s a strange time to be reading about death, I’ll just start with that thought.

When I planned my PhD project, in the spring/summer of 2019, covid-19 wasn’t on our radar and I was happily planning our move back to Newfoundland for the later summer of 2020. After the January 2020 SHA conference in Boston, where there were undoubtedly some people with covid in the city at that point, things began to go downhill. Among other things (replanning our wedding, for one), we had to examine when or if moving was going to happen. How do you start a PhD online, in a different province? How do you focus? And how, I wondered, do I read about death in the news and in my research everyday? How do you talk about your research while people are suffering loss around you?

It’s harder to focus, that’s for sure. It’s harder to keep up with those emails from students and profs, class demands, blog contacts (please don’t stop them, just bare with me re response times!), the dishes and vacuuming, settling that anxiety creeping in, reading for fun, etc. Everything feels like a lot, for everyone, and slowing ourselves down is definitely not a bad thing during this time. I’ve seen loads online about people bragging about being so productive in lockdown, but please don’t listen to them. My book was published in 2020, and that’s not a productivity brag, just the publishing timeline (I didn’t work on it much beyond approving proofs in 2020). Working on research soothes me a little, keeps my restless hands doing something via typing since knitting too long aggravates my fieldwork-injured trigger finger/claw fingers now (archaeology, right?).

I write about death, and people are dying of more than just a scary new virus everyday. In 1628, Sir. George Calvert wrote a letter about half of the settlers at Ferryland being struck down by an unnamed illness. The colony must have been terrified, and those who were not sick had to shoulder extra work while also taking care of the sick. I talk about death and burial, as a universally experienced part of life, but our generation has never experienced anything like this. We are building the tools to survive through a pandemic, and hearing about what happened in historic situations helps a little, I think. A world-changing pandemic is certainly not how I thought I’d start my PhD program, and it’s come with learning a lot of new ways to relax and step away from stressors, academic and world alike.

I’m excited to get into 2021 and hopefully it will become more uneventful as we go. I’m looking forward to fieldwork, prepping for comps, working more on my second book, and hopefully seeing friends and family again soon! Do what you need to get through. As Dr. Fitzpatrick said in the covid briefing last night, Hold Fast, Newfoundland & Labrador.


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“Discussing Gravestone Conservation Digitally: Disseminating Data & Advice through Blogging & Social Media” #DigiDeath Online Conference

A photo of me in 2019, working at Brickstreet Cemetery, London, ON.

Today’s post is an extended version of the presentation I gave on twitter on January 27th, 2021, for the University of Chester Archaeology Student conference, ‘DigiDeath’. A thank you to the conference & Prof. Howard Williams for the invitation to present on my public archaeology work online. Without further adieu, my presentation! This presentation was done on twitter, so the formatting will reference that format.

Abstract: This presentation will discuss the benefits and pitfalls of utilizing digital means, such as twitter, facebook, and blogs, to disseminate gravestone documentation and conservation information. As a heritage professional and historic archaeologist, my research discussions online often brings me into direct contact with the public, volunteers who provide the majority of the restoration of historic burial grounds. I will discuss how we can utilize these channels to ensure up-to-date conservation techniques are making it to these groups, and how we can all benefit from a digital communication for conservation.

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Archaeology of Death: The Renews Grotto

This blog post was written by Jasper Pritchard, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Jasper!

By all accounts, the town of Renews is a serene landscape. Like many spots on the Southern Shore, the quiet but powerful presence of the sea envelops this small community like a blanket, and reminders of Newfoundland history are wrapped up with the clotheslines and sheds that make up daily life. Just one hour from the city of St.John’s, it’s a must visit when I make a day trip up the shore. I remember vividly when my friend Kathleen and I came upon it in 2015. In exchange for using her photos for this assignment I must refer to her as “my amazing, wonderful friend Kathleen”. Kathleen had taken me out to Calvert to meet her grandparents and we made a few stops before and after. We were nearing Renews and looking for a spot to turn around when we spotted an orange sign that read “RENEWS GROTTO” with an arrow pointing to the left. I didn’t even know what a grotto was at that point but decided I should find out.

We spent some time puttering around trying to find it. No one seemed to be around. There was a white shed with “COME IN BYE” written in red paint across the door, another with an abandoned coke vending machine sitting outside it that looked at least 30 years old. Long dead remains of a moose, and a dog gnawing at the pelt somehow did not detract from the picturesque quality of the town, if anything it added something.

Figure 1: A very scary shed, courtesy of Kathleen Walsh
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