Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Holiday (/Conference) Diaries: SHA 2020 Boston, MA

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Fresh off the airplane from Boston, and back to the blog! This past week I had the pleasure of attending the Society for Historical Archaeology’s (SHA) 2020 Annual Meeting in Boston, MA. It was my first SHA conference, and definitely one of the largest conferences I’ve had the change to attend so far, and it was such a wonderful experience! Of course, we did some touristing while we were in town…and most of the talks I attended had everything to do with colonial burials & settlements!


Back Bay, Boston MA

This was the first SHA conference I’ve attended, and I absolutely loved it! Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and there were tons of amazing talks to attend! One of the issues I’ve had attending more general conferences in the past is that you spend a bunch of money out of your own pocket (whether it is reimbursed later on or not), and then don’t end up attending loads of talks because the number that really fall into your research / interest area are few and far between. While the SHA was a very large conference, it was at least a division of ‘all archaeology’ down to ‘historical archaeology’, which is my, and a lot of my peers’, wheelhouse(s). The summary of this is that there were a ton of interesting talks and posters to absorb my time in Boston, including all memorial and burial ground talks for the entirety of Friday and Saturday!

Before the conference started, however, my fiancé Ian and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to check out the Ancient Nubia exhibition. It was fantastic, and we learned so much about such an amazing civilisation! Ancient Nubians created so much technology and art, but they also liked to borrow art and traditions from the Egyptians, such as canopic jars and statues in graves. Except when they borrowed a tradition they liked to really go for it, and some Nubian kings were buried with hundreds and hundreds of the them! There was an entire room of them on display!

I also went on a tour of the Paul Revere House with a bunch of others at the conference. They took us through what is known as the Paul Revere House, which was built in 1680 and is the oldest standing house in Boston, built by Robert Howard on land that used to be occupied by Increase Mather and his family! It was lovely to finally see the inside of this house after visiting Boston several times, and see some of the original woodworking of the 17th-century home! I checked for hexfoils, and while I didn’t see any, there were some marks carved by the woodworkers, which were excellent!

While we arrived in Boston on Tuesday afternoon, the conference really kicked off on Wed night at the reception. I had two engagements to fulfil at the conference: a poster with my friend Sarah on Thursday, and a presentation on some of my research on hexfoils in a mortuary context first thing Saturday morning.

Our poster was titled ‘In Memorium: Challenges in Historic Burial Ground Conservation‘, and is pictured above. Both Sarah and myself work with historic burial grounds, and often with groups of volunteers to study, clean up, and often conduct conservation and restorative practices on the gravestones themselves. There is a divide between the information on gravestone conservation that is available to the public and that academics can get ahold of, due to academic gatekeeping of these data. This is a huge issue, since volunteers are the ones doing most of the conservation work across North America and need to be able to know where to find, and access, documents with up-to-date recommendations from conservators and archaeologists on how to deal with the precious historical resource that is our historical cemeteries and burial grounds. We had a lot of interesting conversations with other conference goers on the topic, and several people suggest that the two of us write a document with current conservation recommendations for volunteer groups. I think we should probably get on that, before another gravestone suffers from being set in concrete for no reason!

(if you are interested in a copy of our poster, we are just making a few edits and then a PDF will be available on this post. Check back soon)


Giving my talk at the SHA (Photo by Ian Petty 2020)

My talk, on the other hand, was on a topic that I regularly write about on this website, as well as in my manuscript for Emerald Publishing that I will *hopefully* be finished editing soon! Book writing, am I right? I spoke about apotropaic, or protective marks, on gravestones, tombs, and ossuary boxes. My main interest is that these symbols were put deliberately on gravestones in large volumes in North America, without having much evidence that they were widely used in the UK in the same fashion. While there are some examples of hexfoils on gravestones in the UK (I need to get some photos of those!), there were way, way more examples in North America, including a few in Newfoundland. I’m doing more research on the topic at the moment & have a lot more to say! I only had 15 minutes to get through a ton of material at the SHA, but I think the talk went well, and I spoke to a few people afterwards about it. I can’t wait to get out and do some more surveys. 🙂


Gravestone of Peter Ayres, The Granary Burial Ground (photo by author 2020)

I did have a chance to do a little poking around while we were in the city though, and managed to visit a few of my favourite sites, including visiting King’s Chapel Burial Ground and The Granary Burial Ground (1630 and 1660 respectively) to check for hexfoils and whorls. It was a little dark, but we did manage to record a few! Unfortunately, due to the resetting of many of the gravestones at these sites and stone sinking, the dates were mostly obscured. Lovely carvings though!

Overall, it was a wonderful trip to Boston, which remains one of my favourite historic cities to visit. I met so many lovely twitter friends irl finalllyy after ages of chatting online, tried some good ciders, and learned about so much current research in mortuary archaeology! I live tweeted one of the sessions on burial grounds, if you are interested! Can’t wait to attend another SHA in the future!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Holiday (/Conference) Diaries: SHA 2020 Boston, MA

  1. Pingback: PhD Research Trip 2: Boston Public Library’s Special Collections & the Massachusetts Historical Society | Spade & the Grave

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