Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Built Heritage, Mortality, & Decay

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As I may or may not have explained on this blog already, I work in built heritage. That means that I deal with the archaeology of standing buildings. In North America it is often referred to as cultural heritage, and is a facet of historical archaeology that I am quite passionate about (and who doesn’t like getting to go into old houses all the time!).

Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of reading into the conscious curation of decaying built heritage. It’s a very interesting topic, and while it’s hard to get away from the mentality that all old buildings are worth saving / preserving / restoring, curation of decay doesn’t mean justification for letting something fall into disrepair that perhaps does need some restoration but rather the ability to see and to interpret the change of a space, its meaning, and its place in history as it becomes overgrown, crumbles, or falls.

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Disclaimer: I don’t disagree with restoration efforts, or conservation at historic sites. It’s important for the retention of history and knowledge. The concept of curated decay is interesting to contemplate in theory, but that does not mean conservation shouldn’t happen. 

There are many reasons to let a building decay: Perhaps it is unstable and unable to be restored, but it a feature on the landscape. Perhaps it is full of asbestos. Perhaps no one has interest in restoring it but no one wants it torn down either. Perhaps the budget isn’t there, but the building itself is significant and should remain in place.

In Ontario, the Criteria for Evaluating Potential for Built Heritage Resources and Cultural Heritage Landscapes: A Checklist for the Non-Specialist produced by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport (MTCS), Sec 4d. asks if the potential property or study area contains buildings or structures that are over 40 or more years old. This does not mean that every property over 40 years old (that’s pre-1978 in 2018) will have cultural heritage value or interest, but that it can be flagged as having a higher chance of being significant.

Lets say it again for the people at the back: Age is not a criterion for heritage value.

Caitlin DeSilvey discusses in her book “Curated Decay” (2017) that the importance of considering the notion of curated decay of historic sites rather than scrambling to replace stones, repoint everything, and rebuilt walls. An old smokestack from a long-gone factory, she writes, is considered part of a heritage site within the town. It has not been an active piece of the factory in a long time, but rather its existence is a slowly crumbling structure that has become part of the landscape. It is a feature of the horizon that people have come to accept as always there. She argues not for neglect of heritage structures, but an acceptance that some structures are too far gone to restore. The decay is part of the structure’s life and its decay, like the decay of the human body, is something that should be allowed to progress.


This image of houses at Fort Steele, BC, shows one house which has been restored, and a house in poorer condition to the left being allowed to slowly collapse in situ, where it has stood for over 100 years. (Fort Steele Resort ND)

This isn’t to say that many heritage buildings shouldn’t / aren’t being protected in some manner or another (preservation, integration, monuments, etc), but only that if there are 50 identical dilapidated barns from 1850…we probably only need to keep one or two of them, recording the others for posterity and allowing them to collapse or be removed. This isn’t the first choice, of course, but is something that sometimes needs to happen. The same dilemma is faced in museums when they get dozens of one type of artifact donated: there simply isn’t the space…or the resources to restore and maintain everything.

Edmund J. Ladd, a Zuni tribal member and anthropologist said: “Putting a War God under glass is not preserving culture. The way you preserve Zuni culture is by using the War Gods in the ritual for which they were created” (in Colwell 2017). Conservation comes in many forms, many of which do not prescribe to the rigid ideas of the western museum system. While a museum may want to preserve an object in perpetuity in acid free material, many Indigenous groups in North America preserve their objects through their traditional uses, practices, and handling. If an object or artifact is wearing down, it is part of the natural life cycle of that object. The National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resource Center, for instance, designed its facility in a way that is sensitive of traditional and museum requirements for collections access and preservation, in an attempt to marry different systems of conservation (Smithsonian 2018).

In Ontario, there is a process to preserve a structure in the form of a documentation report which records the exterior, interior, and historic background of the structure and makes that information available to the public. This is a means of preservation, through records, while allowing the structure itself to perhaps meet the end of its life. (this of course is only carried out after the building has been thoroughly assessed for cultural heritage value or interest and been deemed not to have it / be in too poor of shape to restore. Recording prior to demolition or collapse is a last resort to save an aspect of the property).

Brick Street Cemetery

Brick Street Cemetery, London, ON (Photo by author, 2018)

My favourite example of restoration practices that are a strain on the heritage property itself are from burial grounds. While there are many efforts to restore historic sites, and this obviously isn’t something I’m trying to dissuade people from doing, but some of the practices that are sometimes employed can do more damage more damage than good in the long run.

You see many gravestones, often marble, limestone, or sandstone, which are quickly weathered by wind and rain, glued back together using some combination of cement and metal. The cement acts as a moisture barrier, trapping moisture inside the stone rather than letting it escape through the surface, as would naturally occur. This leads to faster weathering of the stone in and around the area where cement has been applied and causes the stone to fall apart again. Similarly, when metal rods are used, they rust from moisture in the stone, which causes cracking. Modern conservation techniques for gravestone restoration involve lime mortar and putty (breathable, moisture wicking, self-healing, my champion forever) and fibre-glass rods rather than metal ones.

However, no matter what you do, a stone is going to erode if it is left outside. Weathering cannot be stopped. In many cases it is feasible to repair a gravestone that has broken, and it helps it stand for a few more years, but if the stone is so fragmented that the only solution seems to be cement, laying the pieces together on the grass would be just as good of a preservation option in some cases. Allow the gravestone (if it would be further damaged by repair), like the individual is stands for, to decay.


The Rockwood Cemetery, Rockwood, ON (photo by author, 2018)

But why am I telling you all of this? While I’ve been reading about the curation and allowance of decay, parallels have arisen between the protection of anything old and the idea of death denial. Once upon a time I worked on a project to document and record a heritage structure, prior to its demolition so a newer, better one could be built. This structure was one of several in the area, and wasn’t a very good example (especially when compared to the other nearby ones). Furthermore, it was completely falling apart and restoration would have erased many original characteristics of the structure, so instead it was being replaced, as this was the cheaper option and would allow more resources to go towards keeping the better examples in good condition for the future. However, many people in the area were very upset because this structure was being torn down, and newspaper articles described their concern was because the structure was ‘so historic. It has been in the area since the early 1900s,’ not because it was particularly significant. Similar to reducing someone’s quality of life in an attempt to keep them alive when they might prefer hospice care and being comfortable, permitting the decay of a historic building allows it to continue as it was without invasive alterations and remain part of the fabric of the community until it too, passes away.

I think there is a fine line between saving heritage resources because they are valuable to us, to the community, to the fabric of the area, or to the wider history of the province or country and the stories it has to tell, and saving something because people simply can’t bare to let it go. It is an acceptance of decay, an embrace of change, of crumbling, of lose, that draws parallels to the idea of death positivity, of accepting mortality, whether it be your own mortality, or that of a structure.

Death is part of our existence. Life cycles extend beyond human, animal, and insect, to the trees, the mountains, the rivers, and even the structures we cover the earth with. Preserving heritage for the future is critical for our understanding of the past and present, but at sometimes we just have to let ruins be ruins.



Colwell, Chip. 2017. Plundered skulls and stolen spirits: inside the fight to reclaim native America’s culture. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

DeSilvey, Caitlin. 2017. Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press.

Fort Steele Resort. ND. Fort Steele Resort and RV park. Available online: 

Smithsonian Institute. 2018. Cultural Resources Center. National Museum of the American Indian. Available online:

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Built Heritage, Mortality, & Decay

  1. Pingback: Death & Decay in Cultural Heritage Structures | Spade & the Grave

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