Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

“Discussing Gravestone Conservation Digitally: Disseminating Data & Advice through Blogging & Social Media” #DigiDeath Online Conference

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A photo of me in 2019, working at Brickstreet Cemetery, London, ON.

Today’s post is an extended version of the presentation I gave on twitter on January 27th, 2021, for the University of Chester Archaeology Student conference, ‘DigiDeath’. A thank you to the conference & Prof. Howard Williams for the invitation to present on my public archaeology work online. Without further adieu, my presentation! This presentation was done on twitter, so the formatting will reference that format.

Abstract: This presentation will discuss the benefits and pitfalls of utilizing digital means, such as twitter, facebook, and blogs, to disseminate gravestone documentation and conservation information. As a heritage professional and historic archaeologist, my research discussions online often brings me into direct contact with the public, volunteers who provide the majority of the restoration of historic burial grounds. I will discuss how we can utilize these channels to ensure up-to-date conservation techniques are making it to these groups, and how we can all benefit from a digital communication for conservation.

“Hello everyone, and thank you for joining me or this #DigiDeath presentation! I’m Robyn, and I’m a first-year PhD student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, studying burial landscape development in the 17th century. I am also a gravestone conservator, and work with historic cemeteries to ensure the preservation of their space and gravestones. This paper will explore the topic of working in cemetery conservation digitally, through social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and blogs.

As some of you already know, I am perpetually ‘On Twitter’, as well as running my blog/website, ‘Spade & the Grave’. My husband, Ian, and I just started our own (very) small gravestone conservation consulting firm based in Newfoundland, ‘Black Cat Cemetery Preservation’. Thanks to having a well-established and growing online presence, I’ve been able to spread information about safe gravestone preservation practices far and wide, much more than I would be able to using only in-person networking.

Photo of an outdated book on gravestone rubbings with a line through it.

One of the struggles with gravestone conservation (& preservation, I know I use these words interchangeably*) is the amount of information readily available online that is out of date. I won’t say misinformation, since this info was at one time thought to be fine, but we now know better. Practices like gravestone rubbings, using powders on stones, and repairs with iron and concrete are now known to be irreversible and cause long-term to the gravestones which ultimately cause them to fall apart faster than they would have if nothing had been done. This is a huge problem for volunteer groups who might not have access to academic conservation data, but can easily google and find someone saying its ok to rub flour into a gravestone to make it easier to read (it isn’t ok!)

It isn’t just online. When we visit a historic burial site, we can see the results of this outdated info being disseminated and used on recent repairs by very well meaning volunteers, in the form of iron pins and bars reinforcing marble headstones, stones set directing into concrete (hint, you can’t get those out without damage), and the impact of continuous rubbings on softer stones. But how can we help get these ideas out of circulation, so to speak?

Well, oftentimes these out-of-date conservation practices are still being used because that is people ‘have been doing it for years’. I’ve gotten that reasoning from many people online, who are understandably upset to hear they may have been doing damage. That’s totally ok, that it was was thought to be ok at the time! But to advance in protecting our heritage sites, just like all these historic cemeteries, we need to adapt to using conservation techniques as these techniques advance, just like any other field. Conservation is a field like any other, which changes as we learn new information about why certain procedures are good and bad for certain materials.

Through my work in public archaeology of death online, writing about my work with gravestones and research projects on/in various burial sites, I am frequently contacted by individuals who are interested in conserving gravestones within their own communities. If I can help through an email, I am more than happy to do so! That is what the contact-me section of my website is for after all! (I wish I could offer free conservation to everyone, but more than just a quick email, we’ll need to discuss consultation fees, thank you!)

Through online platforms like traditional blogs, Facebook heritage groups, Instagram, and on Twitter (like this presentation originally was presented on), we can help by spreading up-to-date, ‘Do No Harm’ practices as loudly as as often as possible, with the goal of spreading that information as far as we can. Using social media platforms, we can make that information just as accessible as the old practices continue to be. I aim to provide that, and so far it is working pretty well! I am very thankful for the numerous people in heritage groups who have reached out, asking for information or advice on a stone repair. It shows that I’m not just shouting into a void, and that the information we share online reaches the right people!

We are here, as public archaeologists of death and burial, creating spaces where it is not only encouraged to reach out and ask for information on cemetery conservation and restoration, but also where people can remember and honour the dead through their research and work. So please, if you have questions, ask a professional! We have an online presence to help, especially in the covid-influenced digital age! You can find me online here, @graveyard_arch on twitter, or on Facebook at Black Cat Cemetery Preservation.

Additional Resources from Space & The Grave:

*Conservation is a field of heritage work in the protection of objects, structures, and landscapes. An aspect of conservation is preservation, or preserving the thing in question, in this case gravestones, in its current state to prevent further degradation over time, therefore extending its life. We also work to ‘restore’ gravestones, putting them back together and securing them for a longer life as well, also an aspect of conservation.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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