Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


Ownership of the Grave: Who owns the Dead?

Some of you who are active in the archaeology twittersphere may have witnessed the incident that occurred last night / this morning / semi-ongoing. As it relates to burial archaeology specifically, I feel the need to expand on my original retweet.

Here is a breakdown: An archaeologist with a huge public platform, who is very well known for her branding of the term ‘space archaeology’ (this, in itself, it a whole other story), posted a request to her followers to help fund her latest archaeological investigations in Egypt, her primary study area.


Tweet posted on November 7th, 2019, since deleted. 

Let me start out by saying that fundraising for archaeological endeavours is not new, nor something that is usually frowned upon. Groups like DigVentures in the UK are run by professional archaeologists and raise funds for research and excavation through volunteers who help on the digs, and their contributions to the field are immense! We could not do this job without the support and interest of the public, which is why public archaeology (check out the tag #pubarch on twitter) is such an important aspect of the work that we do.

The issue here, as you can see in the tweet above, is that a gofundme incentive was created as part of the crowd-sourcing that offered the public the option to ‘adopt’ a tomb for a donation of $50.00 USD or more.

This is an ethical issue, as it as prescribes the right, even the pretend right, of an individual over another individual’s grave. No matter how old a grave is, it is still the final resting place of a human being and should be respected as such. However, there is the added layer of colonialism here, because the graves in question are Egyptian, a region whose archaeology, including the tombs and mummies, have historically been decimated by the established white antiquarians of the 19th – 20th centuries. Allowing pretend ownership over these tombs is allowing the continuation of this narrative, this assumed ownership over the past.

This raises the question, who owns a grave? I’ve written about an extension of this topic in the past, ‘when is a grave no longer a grave‘, and in short the answer is simple: the deceased. The longer answer would include their ancestors, their families, and their culture. Some museums and art galleries have an ‘adopt an artifact / painting’ program, where the money from the program goes towards the conservation of those objects, but you know what those objects are not? Human remains. The Museum of Ontario Archaeology’s Adopt an Artifact program says it well when they wrote “a symbolic way to show your appreciation of Ontario’s archaeological and cultural heritage, connect with your favorite object, and support the museum.

I’m sure that sentiment is what the gofundme page was going for when they decided to launch an ‘adopt a tomb’ incentive, but pretending ownership over the dead, especially the dead from a country who has already suffered the brunt of colonial impact on their heritage, isn’t ok. As a burial ground specialist and historic archaeologist, I would not dream of suggesting people could own other peoples’ graves, and am not happy to see others suggesting it be done.

The dead belong to themselves, to their people, to their history, to their land. Even when a burial ground has been ‘abandoned’ where I live today, the municipality is assigned as its caretaker, but not as its owner.

Thanks so much for reading.




Holiday Diaries: Exploring the History of Body-Snatching, Burial, & Mourning in Edinburgh, Scotland.

If you follow my social media, you might have gathered a few things recently. Firstly, I just got back from a lovely holiday in Scotland where I explored the morbid and macabre as one such as myself is wont to do, and secondly, I got engaged! So that is all very exciting, but because this is a death blog, I’m going to focus on the former for now.

The majority of my trip was based in the city of Edinburgh. The city is famous for being the home of the Royal Family’s Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh Castle and the Military Tattoo, and of course…Burke and Hare.


Edinburgh & the Firth of Forth, from Calton Hill (photo by author 2019)

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On the Eighth Day: An Explanation for Octagonal Dead Houses

Hello again, fellow death & burial enthusiasts! My goal with these posts is to share my love of a type of structure that isn’t widely written about (clearly my goal is to change that), and inform you all about a burial practice that was reserved for the colder parts of the world…Canada, parts of the USA, the UK, etc. My research on the practice has been restricted to North America and the British Isles thus far, though it is also clear through readings that winter body storage had to happen in many other places as well (ie. Iceland). I can’t wait to dive in further!

Today I wanted to talk about why some of these structures are octagonal in Ontario, as opposed to a standard rectangular or subterranean structures. There might be a method to this madness!


The 15th-century octagonal font at Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, UK. (Image by Michael Garlick 2018)

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Doors Open London: London’s historic burial grounds

This past weekend was Doors Open London, which is a weekend where historic sites and buildings open their doors to the public, free of charge to allow everyone to see places that they might not otherwise have a chance to experience. It’s an awesome time to be a tourist in your own town, and quite a lot of cities participate in the ‘Doors Open’ concept, all throughout the year! See if your city does…and if not, maybe encourage them to??

I had the pleasure of volunteering on Saturday at two sites: Brick Street Cemetery and Woodland Cemetery, both of which you’ll have heard oodles about already if you’ve been following my blog. There were some pretty cool things going on, and it was an awesome opportunity to participate in some public outreach and public archaeology!


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Significant Women of Brick Street Cemetery: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell

It’s a common theme throughout history, that women’s stories are swept under the rug, intentionally or not, to make way for the stories of history’s great men. Of course, with cis women, trans, queer, and otherwise non-gender-conforming individuals being present throughout history, the tales of ‘men’ are only a small fraction of the whole story.

Gravestones from the 19th century have a common formula when it comes to remembering women, and that is by labelling them as wife of… and often not providing any additional information about them. Often nothing much is recorded throughout history about them either, making it even more difficult to find anything else out other than who they married. Today I’d like to talk about three young women who are buried at Brick Street Cemetery, and were early settlers in the area in the mid-19th century: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell.

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Catalogue of Octagonal Dead Houses of Ontario: 8th Structures Identified

It is my greatest joy to share the identification of the 8th identified Octagonal Dead House in Ontario with you all! This structure was located and relayed to me by Adam Montgomery, PhD, who runs @CaCemeteryHist on twitter and the Canadian Cemeteries History website. I was so excited to hear about this site, and to add it to my growing database of the structures.

If you’ve missed my previous posts on this topic, please find them HERE and HERE. Those posts cover the use of dead houses historically, and have images of the other structures! They range from ornate stone to simple brick, and are something to behold.

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Burial Against All Odds

Today I’d like to write a short post to tell you all about a few amazing instances of the pursuit of a ‘proper’ burial against all odds. Before starting, I would like to state that this is a proper burial through the lens of primarily white settler communities in the 19th and 20th centuries in what is now Canada. Thanks!

What denotes a good burial? It can be defined by a person’s social status, their religion, their personal beliefs and choices, fads of the time, and a number of other things. A proper, good burial in the medieval period included being close to the altar, in ancient Egypt it meant having belongings with you to help in the afterlife, for southern USA enslaved families it meant being able to bury their dead in peace on their own terms. For settler communities in Newfoundland and mainland Canada, it meant being able to follow their traditional burial practices of  interment, regardless of the conditions.

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A buck at Woodland Cemetery (photo by author 2019)

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