Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

In Conversation: Questions in Mortuary Archaeology

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Working at Woodland Cemetery to repair a complex marble monument (photo by Brienna French 2019)

Yesterday I had a the pleasure of answering a few questions about my research and work from Dr. Shawn Graham of Carlton University (@electricarchaeo on twitter), for his fall course, ‘Digital History and Digital Archaeology’. Now, I don’t really do digital archaeology, but the questions could be answered focusing on anyone’s specialities. I wanted to share the discussion with all of you! (these answers aren’t work-for-word my short interview answers, but pretty close!)

1. Who are you and what are you currently working on?
Hi everyone! My name is Robyn Lacy, and I’m a historical archaeologist. I work for a cultural resource management (CRM) firm in Ontario, where I am an archaeological, cultural heritage, and social media technician. I’ve been doing this job since early winter, but I’ll be starting my PhD in Historic Archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland (remotely at first)! I’m also finishing up my first book which is based on my Master’s research in 17th-century British burial landscapes in North America, and starting research on my second book as well. Exciting stuff!

2. How did you get started in mortuary archaeology?
Originally when I started my undergrad, I wanted to study maritime or Mesoamerican archaeology, actually! I was studying at the University of Calgary, and went to do my field school after my first year, in Ireland and on the Isle of Man through the University of Liverpool. The first two weeks in Ireland was all recording graveyards in and around County Monaghan, and that was it, I was hooked, and haven’t looked back since then! I spent the rest of my undergrad reading about burial traditions and planning my graduate research…I even reached out to my MA supervisor after the 3rd year of my BA to plan for 2 years from then. Would you be shocked to hear I did the same thing for my PhD research??

3. What is the biggest challenge facing mortuary archaeology at the moment?
I’d have to say that a problem in mortuary archaeology is the discussion of the ‘good death’ primarily in the context in the white people. I study 17th-century colonial burial grounds, which unless specified, we assume is all white people, because that is what we’re taught in grade school, right? But we also know that they weren’t all white people in the early colonies, and the fact that that isn’t inherent knowledge is something that we are working to change, while we work to decolonize the field.

4. Have you had any glorious failures, and so please describe?
I love this question! It’s so important for students and ECRs (I’ve got my hand up!) to understand that projects don’t always go as planned, that data is negative sometimes, and that we can take all that information and learn from it! For my MA research, part of my project was looking for evidence of the early 17th-century burial ground at the Colony of Avalon in Ferryland, Newfoundland. I did 10-weeks of excavation, found loads of interesting artifacts and things that helped us understand the settlement a little better, but we didn’t find any evidence of the burials. But you know what, now we know where they aren’t! And I still finished my MA 🙂 

5. What fills you with hope about the field?
What makes me hopeful about the field right now is the passion of everyone I work with. We are all pursuing questions about the history of humanity throughout time, around the world, and providing information about how societies grew, changed, and overcame challenges. In CRM, sometimes we are working on projects where we aren’t seeing very many artifacts for weeks at a time, or working for large industries in difficult conditions, which can be very draining on the team. It’s great to remember on these projects, that we, along with the Indigenous monitors, are there to protect the archaeological resources that would otherwise be destroyed and lost by developments. Even when the going gets rough, it’s important to remember why we are doing this, and why we are there.

Thank you for reading!


Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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