Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 1


Hello friends, today I’d like to tell you about the first week at my new spring/summer job. I was overjoyed to have recently been hired for a short-term contract at Woodland Cemetery as a Monument Conservator! The job is funded through Canada Summer Jobs program (which isn’t just for students, folks!), so thank you to that wonderful funding that is allowing me to spend eight weeks training to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while…restore and conserve historic burial markers. I feel like I’m living in a burial archaeology dream world right now!

If you want to follow along with the cemetery’s heritage blog, check it out HERE!


It’s the end of week 1, so I thought I should share with you all a bit of what I’ve been doing at work, and what I’ve learned about gravestone conservation thus far! The first day was all orientation to the site and facilities, as well as an awesome presentation and tour with Tom, from Memorial Restorations, who introduced us to the processes of monument restoration not only to preserve historic gravestones, but also to restore any monument that is in danger of falling and injuring someone. (#safecemeteries!) I absolutely spent the entire day grinning (have I even stopped now??), because this is the kind of work I read about and research in my spare time…but now I get to do it full time?!


Lee Song Fu’s gravestone

The team consists of myself and Brienna, the monument conservators, and Meagan and Thomas, the historian/archivists. Can I reiterate how fantastic it is for a cemetery to have a public heritage team? We started out the field work by exploring the Chinese section in northeast corner of the site, which we’ve written about on the cemetery blog already! While there are some tablet markers partially exposed on the surface, they are sinking. They are also few and far between, so we began carefully probing the ground for more buried markers. I’ve talked about probing before on this blog in a negative context (and I’ll say now that I am still not really a fan, it is extremely easy to scratch a gravestone with a spiked metal rod), but without them it is hard to tell what is below the surface without actually hiring in a GPR. That would be the best way to go, but unfortunately we don’t have the funds for that…so very careful probing will have to do.

Very quickly, we uncovered several Chinese tablet markers that were all in line with the existent rows! Oddly, between two of the subsurface tablets was a large corner pillar, usually seen as part of the curbing or railings around a larger grave plot. We spent ages checking out the surrounding area, but have only been able to locate the single pillar. In order to keep the markers from sinking back into the ground, we collected buckets of limestone gravel. This material was placed into a dug out space below where the marker was sitting, to allow for drainage of water underneath, as well as preventing it from sinking into the ground as quickly, and leveling the stone. After a scrub with water and D2 solution, it looks almost as good as new. Without anything, such as a plastic grid, below the gravel, the stones will sink again since that is the natural process, but the gravel will help it stay up longer than if it was just sitting on soil.

Thanks to my friend Sian, who translated the stones from Chinese to English, we know that the stone we reset belonged to ‘Lee Song Fu’, who died in 1939! I can’t wait to hear what the historians can find out about him and the other stones we’ve uncovered.


Part way through the week we moved over to the Hugessen monument. I’ll have more information on Hugessen in due time, but his marble gravestone is in excellent condition and needs to be raised and reset! We were wondering where the original key (the base) of the stone was, and while searching for that we uncovered the pillars and curbing which surrounded the family’s plot! It was completely buried on all sides, and we spent the rest of the week digging up and removing the curbs from the earth. They will be reset and resurrected, and a new key will be made to support the gravestone. After it’s all cleaned up, it will be ready for viewing!


Getting those curbs up was hard work!

What is really cool about being about to return some of these gravestones to the surface is that they are artifacts that literally tell us about the people they were/are associated with. Rarely in historical archaeology, and almost never in earlier periods, do we get artifacts that describe the individual in such personal detail as a gravestone does. But it means something beyond the date of the death, iconography, societal trends, etc. These stones have been buried, forgotten, and if we can bring them to the surface again, their name is seeing the light of day again. People can visit and read it, think about the individual and speculate on who they were, what they did. We can research their lives and tell stories about them, bringing a piece of these individuals from centuries passed back to life in a way, in a meaningful way.

As an added bonus to the week, the wildlife at Woodland is out in full force! We made friends with a tiny squirrel on Tuesday who hung out with us and snuggled in my jacket for an hour, and the cemetery is home to a few new fawns!


Such a cutie! 

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

3 thoughts on “Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 1

  1. Fantastic article / post , great to see your enjoying your time, certainly looks like your wasting any getting at it .. congratulations to you all .


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