Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

PhD Fieldwork 3: Surveying Field Stones at St. Augustine’s Cemetery 1

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This week we wrapped up my fieldwork surveying in New Perlican! This part of my project, which I’ve written about a few times already in earlier blog posts, involves using a total station theodolite to survey and record the location of gravestones at historic burial grounds in New Perlican in order to create maps of the sites for the local archives and to use in my dissertation research on the evolution of the burial spaces in a single community over 400 years. You can find those earlier posts here: PhD Fieldwork Part 1, PhD Fieldwork 2, and Burial Ground Mapping.

This last round of surveying (before all the total stations vanished to field schools and Labrador for the summer) took place at St. Augustine’s Cemetery 1, and yes, there is a second one of the same name! Due to the size and complexity (ie: trees) of the site, I decided to record only the field stones at this location. Often overlooked, field stones are locally sourced grave markers that typically don’t have inscriptions but show a lot of importance in burial marking traditions in a community.

The goats (and sheep) of New Perlican visiting us on site (2022)

This was my first time operating a total station without someone very experienced looking over my shoulder! When we did the surveys last summer, PhD Candidate and surveyor extraordinaire Bryn Tapper took care of most of the technical work, and Ian did all the running around with the staff, while I did notes and photos and ordering around. This time it was just me and Ian, but thanks to our training with Bryn earlier this year, the set up of the total station went relatively smoothly! Ok, well…it took an hour to level the thing today, but sometimes they just do that.

View from the total station, May 2nd, 2022.

It was exciting to operate set up and undertake the survey ourselves! There has not been a lot of work done with field stones in Newfoundland and Labrador, despite the abundance of them in the province. These simple stones, sometimes roughly shaped into a square or rounded top, were taken from locally sourced stones often found in a field when farming, hence the name. Field stones were used when someone didn’t have access to a fancier or more ‘traditional’ gravestone due to economic or geographic constraints, or to mark a grave before a more traditional gravestone was brought in. While these stones typically don’t have any inscription scratched onto their faces, they show just as much love and care in their selection and placement as a fancier stone. The desire to mark a loved one’s grave in some manner, even with a rough stone, is a long-enduring tradition, and field stones definitely deserve the same effort in their research as a result. From what I’ve seen in New Perlican, field stones were used as late as the mid 20th century! In Newfoundland, field stones have been used in sites dating to the 18th century, and were likely used in the 17th century as well. At St. Augustine’s 1, it appears that people were indeed using some field stones to mark a grave before a formal gravestone was installed, and in a lot of cases they kept the field stones in place on the plot after the larger stone was placed. It was really cool to see!

At this site, the majority of the graves that were marked with field stones had both a head and a foot stone, or a stone at the top and bottom of the grave. While that was not the case with more formal gravestones, many of these field stone graves had both markers installed. It will be interesting to see the final map from the data points we collected, as the field stones were pretty well established in rows.

We took a single point on the front of each of the field stones, which proved to be a difficult task! While the cemetery is relatively clear of low foliage thanks to the goats that are let in regularly to take care of the site, there are still a number of tall trees around the area that made it pretty difficult to see the prism sometimes! This meant we had to move the total station to three different locations, with new arbitrary datums and backsights, and backsight to the previous datums and backsights to draw everything together. While there were established control points for mapping in New Perlican, we couldn’t see any of them from this site, unfortunately! That meant that all our datums were arbitrary, and we did our best to tie them into landmarks and permanent features and buildings nearby. Fingers crossed it looks good in GIS later!

Hanging out with the total station on site, May 2, 2022.

In total, we recorded 377 points including boundary and backsight points, for a total of 364 field stones recorded with the total station. An additional 9 stones were recorded by hand, as they were behind a clump of trees and could not be seen by any of the total station set-up locations. That brings us to 373 field stones recorded in total! Some of these stones were so small and low to the surface that without the help of the grass-clearing goats, there would have been no simple way to see them, and even then I’m sure we missed a bunch that have fallen or sunken below the surface. If we are assuming that a head and footstone was the norm for grave marked with field stones (it seemed to be a lot of them at this site, but not all), then we recorded a minimum of 186 graves over the last 48 hours. That’s pretty cool!

St. Augustine’s Cemetery 1 was consecrated on May 10th, 1895, as noted on the Newfoundland Grand Banks page which details the recorded burials, and was used until the 1940s, with a few family burials in owned plots taking place later. Recorded burials at the site date as early as 1893, and the site itself was established after St. Mark’s burial ground was closed. Today, burials take place at St. Augustine’s Cemetery 2, further up into the hills on the other side of the road! While that site is more recent, there are still a few field stones to be found there. Both sites are open to the public, but remember to close and re-latch the gate if you visit St. Augustine’s 1, so that the goats and sheep don’t get out onto the road!

The next steps in this leg of my project are to type up the XYZ coordinates of each point into a spreadsheet, or hope that Dr. Losier can get the total station to talk to her computer so we can download the recorded points, which can then be imported into GIS ArcMaps to create a map of the site. This will be done by someone who is better as using GIS than I am, and can correct for the various times we had to adjust the height of the prism to ridiculous measurements to get it above or around trees. There are a lot of notes about offset points in there and I’ll definitely be calling in the pros to help with that! The end result will be a map of all uninscribed field stones at the site, which provide insight into the burial practices in the community that were carried out by people who were resourceful and used what they had access to, to mark the graves of their loved ones. Next time you’re at a historic burial ground in Newfoundland and Labrador, keep an eye out for these local slate, shale, and sandstone markers, that stand at the graves of those who came before you.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “PhD Fieldwork 3: Surveying Field Stones at St. Augustine’s Cemetery 1

  1. What a beautiful and fascinating spot! I had to chuckle at the photo of the livestock munching on the grass. I’ve seen fieldstone markers here in Ontario too. And just yesterday, I was looking at a couple stones in the bush behind my own backyard and thought: “Gee, I wonder…”

    Liked by 1 person

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