Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Death on the Screen: Taboo, Ep. 1 & 19th Century Burials

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The TV show Taboo, beginning in 1814 London, was created by Steven Knight, Tom Hardy, and Chips Hardy. Airing in 2017 originally with a second season rumoured, the show has just arrived on Canadian Netflix, so we’ve just started in. Why am I writing about a gritty long-18th century set TV program, you may be wondering? Well, one of the first scenes in the first episode involves a funeral. It was an excellent example of the impact that research can have on a television show, to really portray the life and death that people lead during the period, through the accurate display of all aspects of their daily lives, funerals included.

Screen capture of funeral procession in Taboo, Episode 1.

This is just going to be a short post, to point out a few things that my death scholar friends probably also got pretty excited about seeing on their tv screens. The funeral was being held for Horace, father of the main character, James Delaney. We see a funeral procession all in black: horses with mourning garb and black ostrich plumbs on top of their bridles. The horse-drawn hearse crosses a bridge with the funeral party behind them is portrayed fairly accurately (though I am not a 19th century funeral expert, please direct specific questions to Dr. Obrien on twitter @drdan_o). As you can see below on the example undertaker’s card from the National Funeral Museum collection, run by T. Cribb & Sons, London, UK, which dates from 1800-1810, a funeral procession complete with horses and decorated hearse moce across the bottom of the card.

On the far left, at the front of the procession, are two figures on horses with fabric covered staffs. These were called staves, carried by people referred to as mutes, who were hired to reflect the quiet, somber nature of the funeral procession (they weren’t actually mute). They would head the procession with the staves, to signal to those on the streets that a funeral was on its way. It’s such a specific detail that has been retained through engravings and cards such as the one above, and it was very exciting to see them used in this early 19th-century representation of England.

The other major detail of this funeral scene that really intrigued me was the depiction of the coffin. As you can see below, the traditional hexagonal shape of the coffin, covered in a fabric or painted black, is lowered. Cloth such as black broadcloth or velvet was often used to cover a coffin, especially if the wood was of lower quality, though sources suggest it would have been draped or tacked into place with folds of fabric hiding the tacks (Litten 1991:103; Pye 2018:189). There is also archaeological evidence of coffins being painted in a variety of colours, although paint does not survive well in many archaeological contexts (Pye 2018:186). There is a central name plate affixed to the coffin, very common at the time, along with decorative nails around the edge of the lid and creating a pattern. If there is hardware on the coffin in the form of handles or bars, we cannot see it, as they would have only been used to lift the coffin in and out of the hearse. Instead, ropes are used to lower the coffin into the grave.

Horace’s coffin being lowered into the grave shaft, Taboo, Episode 1.

By the early 19th century, coffin furniture (also called hardware) such as name plates, handles or bars, or other decorative elements were being mass produced and were much more affordable. As early as the mid-18th century, these decorative pieces were made by pressing or punching the design using a die-casting machine (Springate and Maclean 2018:165). You can learn more about how these operated at the Coffin Works museum in Birmingham, or through their online archives! This page details the stamp shop, where dies were used to create decorative metal pieces for coffins. As mechanisation grew, fancy pieces for coffins were becoming more accessible through the 19th century, with imagery such as memento mori to angels, crowns, and trumpets (Springgate and Maclean 2018:165). People used funerals to display their wealth to their communities, with elaborate processions and favours, and even decorative screws on the coffins themselves.

Soil staining from a decomposing coffin at Foxtrap, Nfld, from the 2016-2017 excavation. Read more HERE. (photo by author 2016).

In the archaeological record, coffins survive to varying degrees, dependent on the environment where they are buried, the acidity or moisture content of the soil, the materials they are made of, and many other variables. In Newfoundland, coffin material of settler graves often don’t survive well, even from the later 19th century, due to the high acidity of the soil. You can see in the image here that the outline of a hexagonal coffin is visible, but only as a soil stain. This means that the coffin wood itself has decomposed and changed the composition and colour of the soil where the wood once had been. What we can tell about a coffin in this state of degradation is its shape, and the orientation of the nails, which were preserved as mostly iron lumps, but which gave clues about the construction of the coffin itself.

Work carried out at St. Mary’s City by Timothy Riordan (2000:2-10) explored the 17th-century burials the site, and discussed how the nail pattern at the foot of a coffin spoke to how the coffin was constructed, such as an inserted end board, a butted end board, or a combined end board, based on the placement of the nails. Nails placement also revealed how the lid of a coffin was constructed, and I witnessed this at our excavation in Newfoundland as well. A flat lid would only have nails vertically along the edges of the structure, while a gabled lid, made of several pieces of wood, would have small nails running down the middle, which through decomposition, would end up inside the coffin space. As we can see from Horace’s coffin in Taboo, it was hexagonal with a flat top and a good deal of decorative nails or tacks on the lid off the coffin. If it decomposed, we would be left with a lot of metal around the edges of the coffin space inside the grave shaft, giving archaeologists clues about how the coffin looked when it was first constructed.

Alright, that’s enough about funerals from me for one day! Time to go finish season 1 of Taboo…and work on my manuscript! My 2nd book will explore the use of apotropaic marks on gravestones and in a funeral context, with case studies from North America. Stay tuned!


Litten, James
1991. The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450. Robert Hale, London.

Pye, Jeremy W.
2018. “Making a Box Worthy of a Sleeping Beauty”: Burial Container Surface Treatments in the United States during the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. In Death Across Oceans: Archaeology of Coffins and Vaults in Britain, America, and Australia. Harold Mytum and Laurie Burgess, eds. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C. Pg. 177-224.

Riordan, Timothy B.
2000. Dig a Grave Both Wide and Deep: An Archaeological Investigation of Mortuary Practices in the 17th-Century Cemetery at St. Mary’s City, Maryland. Historic St. Mary’s City, Maryland.

Springate, Megan E. and Hilda Maclean.
2018. Burial at the Edge of the Empire and Beyond: The Divergent Histories of Coffin Furniture and Casket Hardware. In Death Across Oceans: Archaeology of Coffins and Vaults in Britain, America, and Australia. Harold Mytum and Laurie Burgess, eds. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C. Pg. 165-176.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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