Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Doors Open London: London’s historic burial grounds

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This past weekend was Doors Open London, which is a weekend where historic sites and buildings open their doors to the public, free of charge to allow everyone to see places that they might not otherwise have a chance to experience. It’s an awesome time to be a tourist in your own town, and quite a lot of cities participate in the ‘Doors Open’ concept, all throughout the year! See if your city does…and if not, maybe encourage them to??

I had the pleasure of volunteering on Saturday at two sites: Brick Street Cemetery and Woodland Cemetery, both of which you’ll have heard oodles about already if you’ve been following my blog. There were some pretty cool things going on, and it was an awesome opportunity to participate in some public outreach and public archaeology!

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I got to Brick Street Cemetery around 11am to help set up. The sun was shining, despite the grey overtones in the clouds, and the lighting was perfect for some morning photography of gravestones for the visitors! The site was opening at noon, and the Friends of Brick Street Cemetery and the Westminster Township Historical Society were both there, with tents set up to chat with the public about the history of the site and the area. (Westminster was annexed by London in the 1960s, or at least the part of it that Brick Street Cemetery is in was!)

While helping get signs ready to put next to significant peoples’ graves, I was immediately distracted by new ground penetrating radar (GPR) results from the survey that local arch firm TMHC conducted at the site just a few weeks before. We stalked around the site, and noted that their data showed three potential graves around Silvany Tunks. Potentially her young children?? I can’t wait to see the raw data!

 

 

One of the things I was really excited to see was a passage I’d written about Hannah M. Caldwell (see last week’s post to learn more) had been printed and placed in front of her gravestone. This is the first time Hannah has gotten a historic write-up for Doors Open, and I hope everyone who visited enjoyed learning about her! I know I certainly did.

Doors Open, especially when you work at a burial ground or two, is an awesome opportunity for some public archaeology of death. It’s an opportunity for people who might not otherwise visit a burial site or might be too shy to ask those nagging questions about burial to have an open platform on which to do so! I love being able to facilitate those conversations, and met some lovely people over the course of the day who asked me about gravestone conservation, grave recycling around the world, burials in Ontario, and much more. What is the point of doing this work if you can’t share it with people, and get their feedback, right?

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Gravestone of young Hugh McLaren, died July 30, 1834.

I resisted the urge to roll up my jeans and take a picture with my hourglass tattoo next to the carving above, and photographed another very unique stone instead. This one featured a mourning couple over a bassinet, a very unique image on a young child’s gravestone. Isn’t it lovely?

At about quarter to 1 PM I had to leave to head over to Woodland Cemetery, in preparation for the first walking tour of the day, which featured myself and my summer colleague Brienna, as their historians Thomas and Megan, and a selection of the gravestones we repaired and researched over the summer! The tour had a massive turn out, at least 30 people if not more (I didn’t actually count, but it was a huge crowd), and we had a great time! People had excellent questions about the history of the site, the individuals buried there, modern burial practices, and how to best conserve the gravestones themselves. Through the tour, I hope we were able to spread a little bit of modern stone conservation practices and keep a few more people from trying to clean gravestones with dish soap and other household cleaners (it really isn’t good for stones, dear readers). Thomas did an excellent job as the lead tour guide, and everyone seemed engaged and interested. We’d love to thank everyone who came out this passed weekend!

After the first tour was over, and everyone was heading over to the Pixley Mausoleum for the dramatic story of Annie Pixley Fulford’s life, we headed over to Section R to start repairing a gravestone that appeared to have been broken by a lawnmower. The clean break of the crumbling marble shone across the cemetery grass and we just had to do something about it! Gathering a few of our tools from the summer, and wearing steel-toed boots of course, Brienna and I headed over to reprise our roles as gravestone conservators.

 

 

It was no wonder why this particular gravestone broke so easily from a lawnmower bump; the marble was crumbling and soft, saturated by moisture and decades of weathering. As you can see in the photo above, the stone was broken in two places, so would requite four pins (two per break, as it was quite a small stone). As we drilled the stone, which went quite quickly, we began to notice a bee or two flying around is. At first, we thought they were only curious about us, since we were standing in a field of small flowers, but we soon realised the bees were entering and leaving a hole in the ground very close to where we were working…

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The Pixley Mausoleum! 

Did you know some bees lived underground? Because I didn’t!! It seems that the vibrations of our drill had disturbed them, and soon we had to move the middle piece to work on it a few metres away so we could avoid the bees. Unfortunately, while checking the pin placement on the base, Brienna was stung on the side of her nose…our only casualty of the day! We kept the tour a little ways away from the bees as a result in order to let them calm down, and then rushed back over and repaired the middle section of the stone for the crowd, which went over very well. (The rest of the stone will be repaired at a later date, since our drill died and we had a sting to attend to). We returned our tools, helped clean up the chairs from the Pixley performances, and turned in for the day.

I had a wonderful experience volunteering for the two burial grounds at Doors Open this year, and only wished that I hadn’t had other commitments on Sunday, so I could have stayed for both days! Thank you to everyone who came out, and if you didn’t get a chance to ask me any questions on Saturday, my inbox is always open!

 

 

Author: Robyn Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage Specialist / Illustrator.

2 thoughts on “Doors Open London: London’s historic burial grounds

  1. I love the great work you do! Glad you escaped a bee sting!

    Like

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