Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 2

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Hello all, welcome back to another ‘updates from the field’ style post, where I’d like to discuss what we got up to at the cemetery this week! It was an extremely busy week, and we got quite a lot accomplished, and learned a load of new skills throughout it all that I am very excited to use throughout this program and hopefully throughout my career as a historical archaeologist.

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Little woodchuck friend coming to see why we were digging so many holes in their field! 

We started out the week by continuing work on the Hugessen monument. When this thing is done, it is going to be our shining glory! With all the curbs having been raised last week, we (myself and colleague Brienna) and Joey (groundskeeper/everything person!) got to work shoveling limestone screening into the fairly large ditches to support the curbs and raise them back above ground level. This way they would be visible from the surface again, creating a more historically-accurate version of the monument site, and also keep them from sinking back into the ground (as quickly).

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The raised curbs of the Hugessen monument

It took most of the day, but we got the curbs reset and packed the sides with the screening as well to help support the walls. This will eventually be covered with topsoil and grass seed, so the lawn grows back around the curbs like it would have originally. The next step on this particular project is to have a key (base) made for the gravestone itself and put it back upright! More on that later!

Next we started learning how to reset monuments that had fallen out of their original keys, but both the gravestone and the key were still intact and in good condition. This was particularly exciting to me because it meant mixing up a bit of lime mortar to put into the base! If you’ve talked to me about heritage for more than 2 minutes you’ll already know that working with lime in heritage (and lime kilns) is one of my favourite topics and working with it in a cemetery is extra amazing! Before we could reset the stones, however, we had to clean and level the bases. Unlike smaller tablet markers which lay flat on the ground and a quite small (and designed so lawnmowers can pass over them), larger markers need to be completely level to keep the top section(s) from falling over again. So we dug out the keys for two monuments, leveled them with limestone screening, and reset the keys at an appropriate height. If you want to read more details about this process, as well as resetting the gravestones themselves, please check out our blog post over on the Woodland Cemetery History blog. (Thank you Brienna for taking some photos of me working with lime mortar) 

The above photos are only one of the two stones we reset that day, along with uncovering several more that will require more complex repairs! We got through that day with only a partly squished finger for me, so I’ll call that a success!

Next was to start learning how to reset gravestones that had broken and could be attached back together. This is done by drilling into both sides of the stone to set a pin or pins into the stone. It is a more invasive repair, by a conservation standpoint, but will add extra strength and stability to the weakest point of the stone, and allow it to stand for longer. Of course, we only undertake this kind of repair when the stone will allow it. Like everything, stones have a lifespan, and if it would be detrimental to the survival of the gravestone we won’t undertake a pin repair, but instead might leave it laying on the surface.

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Drilling into the base of the gravestone.

We started learning with process with the wonderful Joey, and decided to repair the gravestone of a small child which had broken in two. It only needed one pin to repair, and was a good chance for myself and Brienna to learn how to use the masonry drill! We decided that rather than using fiberglass rods, which is the step above metal rods, we were going to try out wood dowels inside. Metal rods can eventually rust within the stone, which causes further damage and eventually cracking of the gravestone, and while fiberglass rods don’t do that, if the repaired failed in the future and the stone was going to fall again, having a stiffer material than the stone itself could cause pieces to be cracked off as the marker fell and pushed against the rods. The wood dowels, which will provide internal support, will also break with the stone if it were to fail in the same place (aka the weakest point of the stone), and therefore not cause additional damage. The ‘purest’ approach is what we are going for here, as historic monument conservators!

We had an exciting visitor this week as well, a CBC Radio report came out to speak to us about the preservation work we are doing at Woodland Cemetery this year, how it is working in a cemetery, and how we got into the field! It was very fun, and I’ll be posting more about the radio program and eventual digital article when they go live!

Finally, we started repairs to an amazing gravestone from 1853. With the cemetery having opening in its present location in 1879, we can safely assume that this stone was relocated from an earlier burial site elsewhere in the city, potentially from St. Paul’s Cathedral. This particular gravestone doesn’t need to have a key reconstructed, because it never had one in the first place! The marker extended several feet below the surface, and likely snapped off around ground level, and then sunk below the present ground’s surface, where we found it. This made it a little easier for us, because we only had to take out the original bottom of the stone and fill the hole with limestone screening to give the gravestone support before leveling it and packing more limestone around it.

This will be a more complicated repair than the small cross we did earlier in the week, with a total of six (6) pins being required to help support which is turning out to be a very large and impressive gravestone for a small child. You can see the discolouration between the buried sections and the sections exposed to the elements for different periods, which we will continue to clean once the stone has been reset and secured in place one again. We are hoping to finish this project on Monday or Tuesday!

xxx20190529_143417Additionally, on Wednesdays we work in the office on blog posts and other online projects for the Cemetery such as social media (follow their instagram/fb/twitter/blog etc). During last week’s ‘office 2/3 of the day’, Brienna whipped up an awesome pamphlet with information on how you too, can clean your family/friend’s gravestones without unknowingly causing damage to the stone itself! It is available at the main office, and soon to be available as a free, downloadable PDF that you can print at home! When that is live, I’ll let everyone know!

It was a very busy, and very fun week! Of course I couldn’t cover everything in this one blog post without literally turning it into a novel (with a lot of pages all in excited caps), so consider this a highlights reel of my job! It’s amazing to be working in an active cemetery, helping to restore historic gravestones that might otherwise be overlooked in terms of repair priorities.

Hope you have had a lovely weekend, and thank you as always for reading!

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

One thought on “Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 2

  1. Fascinating! Thanks, Robyn! Looking forward to more.

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