Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 5 & 6

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There has been a lot of work going on over the last two weeks! So much that last weekend was super busy and I didn’t have time to write a blog post. I went to a bridal shower, worked on an article for ages (& finnnNALly submitted it), visited a cottage with my friends, and did a bunch of other things. Bye weekends, I hardly knew you!

You’ll all be pleased to know we only had like 2 rain days over the last two weeks, so there is a little more to talk about! We fixed so many stones, uncovered some extra dramatic stories, did a couple tours, worked with a practicum student, went of a tree-tour of the cemetery, and fought with the drill! That last part doesn’t sound as dramatic to you as it was, but stay with me…


Tools of the trade!

We started out week 5 with a project that is ongoing…but neither Brienna and myself thought that it would last this long! After finishing off the repairs of two gravestones in Section K that included the repair of an entire key that was destroyed by plant life (look forward to a Woodland Blog post on that stone soon!). These two stones, luckily, both only had one break and cleaned up pretty quickly. Per usual, we included limestone screening below the stones to prevent quick sinking, and support the stone, while also providing drainage. Both of these stones were marble, but one was grey and didn’t appear to be marble from far away. In the photos below, the centre and right-hand stones had not yet been cleaned, so please excuse the weird discolouration!

At the end of that Monday, we identified two gravestones that were broken into several pieces, and almost completely buried underground. From the surface, it almost looked like a ledger, but revealed two stones when the sod was removed.

We were so excited! Once the visible pieces of the Carter gravestones were removed from the ground for cleaning, I probed below the stones and found the second base (first visible in the photo above). Like all of the 1850s gravestones we’ve worked on at the cemetery, these two stones were not created to stand in keys but extended a foot or so below the surface to support the stone. It is very common to see these stones snapped off at the base (but honestly, I prefer them to the key-type, they are often more stable!)

The stone for Margret Matilda Carter (1855, 1yr) featured a flowers at the top with Gothic-style framing, and the stone for Caroline F. Carter (1859, 6 yrs) showed a mourning woman, a bird in a tree, and a lamb, with roses in both corners and framed with Gothic-style framing as well. Both stones displayed several scripts and intricate poems at the bottom of the epitaphs, clearly chosen by parents who deeply cared for their children.

The marble though. You guys, the marble on these gravestones is ridiculous. I don’t know how to express through words how tough this particular stone is! Usually when drilling into stone to add supporting interior rods, we use an electric drill and a masonry drill bit. Good, right? It works well for marble and sandstone, not so well for granite because we can’t push down hard enough but for most historic stones, we’re golden! This marble though…this marble eats drill batteries. In two weeks, we have reset what you see in the right image above, drilling 2 holes per break because of the tough nature of the stone, or we’d be there forever!! My goodness! We were saved last Friday by the offer of using the crematory’s special drill for removing metal casket handles, which isn’t used often and is way newer. It worked like a charm, though you still have to nearly stand on it to get enough force, and we only have one more joint to fix! Hopefully the 3rd week of battling with these stones will go a little better, and I can’t wait to show them to you all when the sisters are standing tall beside one another again! The Carter sisters’ gravestones were moved from St. Paul’s after Woodland opened in 1879, and we currently don’t know if their parents are buried nearby or not, but I’m glad we have been able to recover and reset their stones. Come visit them in Section K, east of the crematory!

xxx20190620_143404Once of the most exciting things that happened over the last two weeks was the uncovering of Robert Cooper’s gravestone. Robert died at age 17 in 1871 in a tragic accident: the explosion of a ‘soda water cylinder’ at the Bilton’s Soda Water and Pop Works.’ His gravestone has the tank that killed him carved onto the top of the stone, to our horror and delight, and I have written a really dramatic post about everything we know about Robert for the Woodland blog: please read it HERE.
I don’t want to spoil everything here, but I promise you’ll love the story!

Fairly dramatically, we also raised two stones with a back-hoe this week, and the help of Bruce the machine-operator, and Joey, whom I’ve mentioned before. When I say ‘we’ in this instance, I should elaborate that Brienna and I were wearing hard hats and mostly just checking to see whether or not the crosses were straight, while Joey and Bruce did the actual heavy lifting / guiding of the crosses into their bases. With the smaller cross, the stone was marble and we were able to give it two supporting rods where its previous metal rod had rusted out of place, causing the cross to nearly tip over when Brienna gave it a nudge…which is how we realized it needed fixing. If we could nudge it, think of what a running deer or a child leaning on stones could do! Cemeteries need to be safe, everyone! Please don’t push on gravestones πŸ™‚

xxx20190625_092658We affectionately called these ‘crane days’, while fully knowing that no…a back-hoe is not a crane. Check our notes! Thankfully, lifting crosses with straps is fairly easy compared to a straight stone, because of the cross-piece that allows them to be securely lifted! The smaller cross we repaired was directly beside the massive granite obelisk of J.R. Peel and family. Peel was a gravestone carver in the London area who was also the father of Paul and Mildred Peel, Canadian painters! Paul is buried there, but Mildred’s name is not mentioned on the stone. It actually appears that the Peel monument broke and was repaired in the past, and no one at the cemetery can figure out how it was fixed because the stone seems to have broken in the middle…at least 8-10 feet off the ground! They must have brought in an actual crane!

The second cross was much larger, and we had to attach two pieces back together before the cross itself could be lifted. Unfortunately, because our drill doesn’t really work with granite, the second cross was attached with lime mortar and construction adhesive within its deep base. We are all hoping that is enough to hold it, or we’ll have to call in the big guns (Tom, basically).

Wow, this has been a really busy two weeks! Along with resetting many upright markers, we set multiple markers flat on the ground. The reasons for doing conservation in this method are if the gravestone is too far broken to be safely repaired, if we can’t get a key made in the near future, or if there is a detail on the stone we want to be visible. Details like this might the carver name or if the stone was broken at an odd angle, where setting it in the ground or a key would obscure part of the inscription. While gravestones laying on the ground, text up, will weather differently that upright markers, we want to preserve them in the context we found them as best we can, and make as much of the stone available to be viewed and recorded as we can, so it is sometimes the best option.

20190626_145355 copyOne such gravestone was the stone of Marion Phillips, the 10 year old daughter of Thomas and Amelia Phillips. Thomas is a stop on Woodland’s upcoming walking tour on July 6th (this coming Saturday, folks!) Marion died in 1851, making this the oldest gravestone we’ve worked on this summer so far! It was in three pieces, laying at the foot of her father’s grave, and did not need a key. We were excited to repair the stone and were making plans while cleaning when we noticed something really interesting: carving on t he base of the stone!

This is really cool. The carvings on the base of the stone depict human faces in profile, an are lightly scratched into the gravestone. While I have seen some examples of ‘practice letters’ on the buried bases of gravestones before (check out Poor Frank Raw’s blog post ‘What Lies Beneath‘ for more examples!), I’ve never seen what could be construed as ‘doodles’ before! While letters and some designs were likely practice or testing of tools by the carver, these faces are an example of the carver wasting some time at work. Maybe they were drawing their co-workers, or self-portraits? They knew the doodles would be hidden underground, so they went for it! However, Marion’s stone was moved from St. Paul’s and laid by her father’s grave, allowing us to see these secret drawings. As a result, we set the gravestone in limestone screening so visitors can see them too!

xx20190626_122114We finished off last week with a tour of the trees and other plant life at the cemetery, complete with delightful sun-shade umbrellas, and wrote blog posts inside due to thunder storm warnings and the oppressive heat! There are, of course, many many more details I could go into for the last two weeks, but as this post approaches 2000 words, I think I should probably wrap it up! I can’t believe that there are only 2 weeks left for this position, I wish it could continue for the rest of the summer…or until it snows? I feel so lucky to have gotten to learn gravestone conservation and restoration first-hand at such an amazing site, and am really looking forward to all the work we are going to do over the next 2 weeks! If anyone wants to hire an archaeologist with burial ground conservation experience / a budding interest in crematory operation, give me a shout!

As always, thank you for reading!






Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 5 & 6

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of June 30, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

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