Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Gravestone Conservation: Week 7

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My goodness, what a whirlwind these past 7 weeks have been! With only one week to go, I can’t believe I’m nearly finished with these weekly(ish) blog updates of my training and work as a gravestone conservator. Here we go people, I can fix gravestones and know more about stone than I did two months ago! Does anyone want me to talk about stones forever…because too late, I’m never going to stop!

It was an exciting and productive week at the cemetery, so lets dive in! It was only a four-day week because last Monday was Canada Day, so I’m pretty impressed with all the things we got done.

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Meagan & Thomas, archivist/historians, preparing for the July 6 tours.

xxx20190702_112410First off, just a little note about the damage that humans can do to historic gravestones. This photo here is a good example of what appears to be a whipper-snipper (also known as a weed whacker if you didn’t last use one in Newfoundland??) can do when it comes in contact with stone. Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about this damage, but I just wanted to point it out to all the volunteers out there helping to clear debris and grass from cemeteries and burial grounds! Hi guys!

One of the most exciting projects we wrapped up this week was the Carter Sisters’ gravestones (check out that link for the in-depth look at the gravestone restoration!). The entire repair job took us two weeks from unearthing to complete, due to just how hard the stone was! We’re not sure if this particular marble was from a different place that the carvers regularly obtained their stone from…but it was ridiculous. We have a masonry drill-bit and yet we drained battery after battery, and finally got all of the pins in! You’ll notice in the photo that the top corner of Catherine’s stone was repaired. Initially we attempted to just reattach the corner with an adhesive, due to the tough nature of the stone but, as we should have seen coming, when we brought the top piece up for drilling, the weight broke the corner off again.

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The Carter Sisters’ gravestones

What had happened, extra-unfortunately, was because the marble is in a state of ‘sugaring’, which we talked about in our Woodland post on gravestone weathering. This means that the surface of the gravestone feels sugary to the touch because chemical rain and other such events are causing decay on the surface of the stone. When we tried to lift the gravestone itself, the pressure caused the adhesive to tear away from the the ‘decaying’ surface of the gravestone, taking little stone particles with it. Luckily, we had enough drill battery left that day to pin the piece back on, and the crack is hardly noticeable now! All part of the learning process, right?

The second huge thing that happened last week was the Woodland 2019 walking tour day! Thomas and Meagan have been working extremely hard all summer long to prepare a walking tour on the history and gravestones of immigrants to the area, a significant topic in this day and age. There were to be two tours run on July 6th, one at 1pm and one at 3pm, so that hopefully everyone who wanted to could get a chance to hear the tour and learn a little more about the individuals who made the city what it is today.

If you haven’t checked out the walking tours at Woodland, do yourself a favour and download some of the PDFs available on the website! Even if you aren’t in the area, the docs are informative, with loads of pictures and maps, and really well done! The 2019 tour brochure will be added shortly too, and it’s a beauty (nice job Thomas!). The other thing that everyone was excited about on tour day was the cemetery pins! Cemetery. Pins. I don’t know how long I’ve wanted a shaking hands button/pin but it has been quite a while, and now they exist, out there in the world!

 

My role, along with Brienna, was to be a ‘tour stop’ at a place where we were doing work. The location we selected, (on the south side of K, if you were wondering) was shaded to one side by a huge walnut tree and the other side by a ginkgo, giving us pretty good shade coverage all day. Originally we headed there specifically for the tour to edge and raise a few broken gravestones onto limestone screening in the grass…but of course once we started working, we had to keep going (stay tuned for Week 8 to hear how that went!). Visitors came over on the tour and we answered questions about monument conservation, what techniques we use, and showed everyone what we had been working on most recently.

It was fantastic to be able to show the public what we had been working on in the heat the last few weeks, and see the interest and excitement in their faces! It really is a privilege to be able to do this kind of work, helping to preserve history in such a physical way! People seem to be really interested in the processes and the endurance of the stones themselves!

I’d really love to continue doing monument restoration in some capacity, as it is directly related to my research, and am currently trying to figure out how to potentially work with not-for-profit heritage organizations or grant funding agencies in order to continue doing this work. Something I’m really passionate about is being able to educate individuals who are interested in gravestone and burial ground conservation, whether it be through this platform, my social media, more formal conference presentations, public talks, books, or workshops, how to take care of the sites in the community in a way that is sympathetic, safe, and most importantly safe for ongoing survival on the gravestones. I’m still working out how I’m going to achieve this, but I think that teach others about these safe work practices as part of interpreting their community heritage should be, and is, a major part of my job as a historical archaeologist who works with burial grounds. (so if anyone has an amazing ideas for this or proposals, my inbox is open! )

 

I’ve talked about it a lot on this blog in the past, but an aspect of conservation of gravestones is to know when to let them go. To accept their mortality, as with many aspects of heritage, is to allow them to live out their own life cycle. Yes, even stone dies. In the case of the stone of Robert Alexander, 1868, the marble gravestone was shattered into seven pieces, either from falling or from the pressure of being rolled over with lawnmowers. The stone was partially buried and located near the tour stop so we decided to get it up to the surface once again. But did we ‘restore’ the stone? Nope!

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Robert Alexander, 1868

After an assessment of the (crumbling, root-eaten, sugaring) condition of the pieces, we determined that attempting to drill into the stone for resetting would overall be detrimental to the continued survival of the stone itself. The safest option was to reset the pieces in limestone screening after cleaning, and force limestone screening into as many of the cracks as we could, in order to prevent the quick settling of sediment and growth of plants in the stone again. The limestone ‘border’ around the stone is meant to keep the grass back for a little while as well.

While getting the stone upright would preserve the inscription for longer, due to less impacts from rain, walking, tires, etc, drilling into the stone would likely have caused it to shatter and thus here we have it: the most sympathetic option!

And there we have it, a summary of what was ultimately the hottest week that we have had in Ontario so far this summer (+40 with the humidex last Friday?! No thank you). We survived, pulled off some excellent walking tours (huge thank you to everyone who came out on Saturday and braved the heat for us! We all appreciate it!!), fixed a lot of gravestones, and very crucially prepped ourselves for the final week of this program. Coming to a blog near you soon, Week 8!

As always, thank you for reading!

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

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