Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

The Comprehensive Exams of a PhD Student during a Global Pandemic

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Subtitle: “Doing a PhD during the pandemic is pretty weird sometimes

Hello readers, happy 2022! It’s been quiet over here on Spade & the Grave as I took about a month off from looking at my laptop, after spending the entire fall working on my comprehensive exams. As I was tweeting or talking about my comps to various group chats and platforms, many people asked me what the process is, so I thought I’d write about that today!

St. Mark’s Cemetery, New Perlican (Lacy 2021)

In most universities in North America, our PhD programs involve taking courses and comprehensive exams of some form before being considered a ‘candidate’ and being able to move forward with our program, and are 4-years minimum. This differs significantly from programs in Europe and Australia (and probably other places, I’m not sure) where the typical PhD program is 3-years, with an additional 4th for writing sometimes.

My program so far has looked like this:

The goats of New Perlican (Lacy 2021)
  • 2 courses and a language requirement (French translation) in 1st year;
  • Some fieldwork in the summer of 1st year; and
  • Comprehensive exams, Sept 2021 – early Feb 2022,

I’m at the end of step 3 there! Comprehensive exams, or ‘comps’, are different for every discipline, and even between universities as well…basically they are not standardised at all. My archaeology department recently overhauled their comps system to be much less stressful and all-consuming than it used to be, for the mental health of all the students. It consisted of creating a reading list of 50 sources (25/comp), as well as developing the themes and questions with my comps committee. Then I had 4 weeks to read for and write a 25-page paper on the first question. My committee had 1 week to read and grade the paper, and advise on whether I would be allowed to continue, rewrite, or fail, before I did the same again for the 2nd question. I passed the written comps! Had I failed either of my written comps, my phd program would have been terminated (that is the scariest part of doing this!). We had December off to recuperate, and I’m currently working on the presentation for my final, oral comps.

The presentation is 15 minutes long, and I will have to summarise my two papers, as well as addressing comments from my committee. And yes, the photo of goats is going in the presentation! I think what will be really good about having to discuss the papers in real time, rather than just reading comments in a pdf is that I can had a discussion with my committee about issues or questions they have, which will ultimately inform how I move forward for my thesis proposal and my research! Assuming I pass the last comps, I’ll then have a couple of months to write my thesis proposal, which is then defended to the department. At that point, I’ll be a PhD candidate!

So what did I write my comps about, you might be wondering? Even if you’re not, too late, here we are!

My first paper was on the development of the mortuary archaeology landscape and cultural representation in burial spaces in the 17th-century settlements of northeast North America. It was a bit of a broad topic to fit into 25 pages, so I selected a few case studies from the British (Boston, MA, and New London, CT), British (New Amsterdam and Sleepy Hollow, NY), and French (Saint Croix Island, ME, and Quebec City, QC) colonial powers in the northeast. These case studies will be greatly expanded on in my dissertation research, but I’m very interested in the burial landscape development in these early 17th-century settlements, and how they might represent national, religious, and community displays of grief through the archaeology. I looked at British sites exclusively in my masters, so this is an expansion of that project because I have a lot more questions.

Isle de sainte Croix (Champlain 1614:134)

The other major aspect of that paper was beginning to ask how ‘visible’ (or not) BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Persons of colour) were in these colonial burial spaces. Were they included? Did they have grave markers? Were they allowed to represent their own beliefs and identity in these spaces? So far there is a lot of data from the African Burial Ground in NYC (New Amsterdam) which show Christian burials for orientation and style, but body modifications and ornamentation of the bodies which were significant to the individuals. Burials and funerals were a way to display their identities in a society that did not want that to happen, to the point where, in early 18th century Boston, large ‘extravagant’ funerals were banned, specifically targeting the funeral traditions of Black residents (Sweet 2003).

I wrote a little about some accounts of Black and Indigenous deaths and funerals from the diaries of Samuel Sewall last year (see HERE), which I also included in my comps. There were approximately 127 mentions of funerals and burials between 1674 and 1699 in Sewall’s diaries, with only six entries mentioning Black or Indigenous individuals. There were an additional five records between 1700 and 1729. These records show that for a prominent citizen of Boston, a judge, who recorded deaths of citizens frequently in his personal diary, that the deaths of BIPOC residents of his city were not of the same value to be recorded.

Surveying the Hefford burial ground with Ian and Bryn, June 2021 (Lacy 2021)

I could go on, but let’s move on to comps paper #2.

This paper was on the public archaeology of death and burial, and the importance of collaborative research and community impact. This one was more challenging to me because I had less of a background in researching public archaeology! My goals were to discuss how collaborative research is important to archaeology as a field, for the archaeologists and the communities they engage with, and how public archaeology can help communicate the significance of local heritage.

Public archaeology really became a sub-field of archaeology in the mid-late 20th century, and definitely wasn’t a new idea, but the term didn’t come into common use until the early 21st centuries (Gould 2016; Sayer and Sayer 2016). Many community archaeology projects are initiated by the communities themselves who reach out to archaeologists because they have questions about their past (Rankin and Gaulton 2021), which is how the best connections are made between communities and researchers. Public mortuary archaeology is another sub-field, working towards facilitating an understanding of death and dying historically, while opening a platform for discussing these topics both in person and online through social media and traditional blogs (like this one, hi!).

My own research in Newfoundland and Labrador, in the community of New Perlican, began through connections that were already established by Heritage NL, Heritage New Perlican, and MUNL, and I’m excited to be continuing that partnership to hopefully help the community answer questions about their burial grounds and heritage. This past summer (2021) I conducted a survey of the gravestones at six burial grounds with Bryn Tapper and Ian Petty, to record the locations of all known historic gravestones for my research and the community. The resulting maps were provided to Heritage New Perlican, to be a record of their heritage resources, and I also wrote about the mapping HERE. I’ll be continuing this fieldwork this year (2022)!

Ian (left) and Bryn (right) setting up the total station (Lacy 2021).

And so far, that’s it! I’m in the middle of summarising my papers onto slides, which this blog post has been an excellent exercise for, and pulling some fieldwork photos to sprinkle in there (including the goats, obviously). Ian and I are also busy lining up our fieldwork schedules for 2022, which is a load of coordinating MUNL fieldwork, Black Cat fieldwork, our own camping plans, and potential visits from family and friends, while navigating the ever-changing restrictions of the pandemic! At the moment, research in Labrador has been suspended and face-to-face interactions with research participants is not allowed either, and for good reason, but it does put a pause to anyone who needs to conduct interviews as part of the fieldwork or make public presentations of results. As ever, we pivot, change plans, and make backup plans for being in the field. It’s definitely a strange time to be doing a PhD!

As always, thank you for reading and taking an interest in my research! I can’t wait to bring you more posts!


Champlain, Samuel de. 1613. Les Voyages. Isle de sainte Croix. Jean Berjon, Paris. Pp. 134.

Gould, Peter G. 2016. On the Case: Method in Public and Community Archaeology. Public Archaeology, Vol 15, 2016, Issue 1 <>. Accessed 11 November 2021.

Rankin, Lisa, and Gaulton, Barry. 2021. Archaeology, Participatory Democracy and Social Justice in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Archaeologies: Journals of the World Archaeological Congress. <>. Accessed 12 November 2021.

Sayer, Faye, and Duncan Sayer. 2016. Bones Without Barriers: The Social Impact of Digging the Dead. In Archaeologists and the Dead: Mortuary Archaeology in Contemporary Society, Williams, Howard and Melanie Giles, editors, pp. 139-165. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sweet, John Wood. 2003. Bodies Politic: Negotiating Race in the American North, 1730-1830. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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