Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

PhD Research Trip: Halifax & Annapolis Royal, NS

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Happy November, readers! It’s been a hectic last few weeks in our house, and I think I’ve spent just as much time living out of a suitcase this fall as I have at home… still not unpacking my suitcase. Whoops. Early in October, I travelled to Nova Scotia for a week for my PhD research. I visited the Nova Scotia Archives, the Old Burial Ground, the Nova Scotia Museums offsite storage, and travelled out to Annapolis Royal to visit the Garrison Burying Ground and meet with Parks Canada and Mapannapolis staff in order to discuss the history of the site. It was a really amazing trip, and I got to stay with my dear friends in Dartmouth as well, which is just a research trip bonus!

Lets go!

Fort Anne, Annapolis Royal, from the site of the church looking towards the centre of the site over the earthworks (photo by author 2022).

The main purpose of this trip was a site visit to Annapolis Royal and conducting research at the Nova Scotia Archives. I landed in Halifax at 8am on my first day, so after picking up my rental car I headed straight into Halifax to visit the archives! What a fantastic facility they have, with exhibits and a gallery space on the first floor, and the best buttons I’ve ever seen in an elevator. I had been in contact with one of the archivists before visiting, so I already knew that a lot of their records were digitized, and I wanted to visit in person to check out what documents in the archives that weren’t just available online. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been more excited to press an elevator button than I was about the RESEARCH button in the archive elevator. I’m pretty sure it’s famous for being so cool.

I spent three days at the archives on an off over the course of my research trip, looking at early church records and letters from individuals from the early days of Nova Scotia history. While one of these people was born in the 17th century, unfortunately I was not able to find any additional documents on the microfilm that were really that useful for my research. I don’t think it was a waste of time though, because I got some valuable experience in the archives, and was able to make sure that I covered my bases in terms of checking the physical collections for records that would be useful to me.

On my last day at the archives, however, I did find several hard-copy volumes of letters and broadsides from New York state and Boston from the 17th century, which overlapped well with my research. The series of letters I was able to look at were correspondence to and from Maria Van Rensselaer, a Dutch woman whose late husband was the patroon of Rensselarrwsyck, a patroonship in upstate New York, which was then New Netherland! The most compelling thing I read from her notes was a letter to her brother-in-law in January 1682, where she wrote “I cannot bear to see him any longer in the possession of the patroon’s garden, where my husband, my child, and brother, deceased, be buried [and to know] that he is master of it.”

Copy of death notice broadside from the Massachusetts Historical Society Broadside collection.

I will need to investigate further to locate the garden in question, but the man she was upset with, Robert Livingston, wrote in response that he intended to keep the farm in his possession after the ‘Domine’s’ death, until the entire estate was settled and until the family had paid all their debts. It may be a family burial site on private land, which is not what my research explores, but their burial practices would reflect a wider organized tradition in their culture. How cool!

I also found a book that contained copies and catalogues of broadsides and other posters from 17th-18th century Massachusetts, including this beautiful death notice with a memento mori border, dedicated to Rebekah Sewall, the young daughter of Samuel and Rebecca Sewall. It is a gorgeous example of the early 18th-century tradition of funeral ephemera, of objects and drawings associated with death and burial. Stunning!

The other big part of my research trip was travelling out via my way-too-fancy rental car to Annapolis Royal, a community famous as one of the earliest French and Acadian settlements in what is now Nova Scotia. I planned to meet with staff from Parks Canada and the not-for-profit group Mapannapolis (the most fun word to say), and be shown some of the history of Fort Anne and the Garrison graveyard adjacent to the fort. The burial ground was established first by the Acadians during the 17th century, and recent GPR surveys of an open space in the burial ground revealed 19 subsurface anomalies synonymous with what burials look like using that equipment. You can see a photo of the space below, which does not have any grave markers on it. They were likely originally marked by only a wood cross or a smaller stone!

What an amazing site. I was shocked by the size of the surviving earthworks at Fort Anne as well! I’m used to the earthworks at Ferryland, NL, which are very impressive but only 8-10 feet deep in the deepest area. The earthworks at Fort Anne, which date from the 18th century, were so steep that the staff had to put wood staircases on the sides to allow people to walk up and down them, or they would have been too steep to access! Stunning place, I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area even if you aren’t interested in the archaeology.

This was my first time Annapolis Royal, and going there in person really helped me gain a better understanding about the timeline and development of the site, specifically the use of the burial space between the earlier Acadians to the British takeover of the site. There was even a large ditch that had been cut through the burial space that I wouldn’t have known anything about had I not visited in person! It was cut in the 1760s to protect soldiers moving to and from a blockhouse at the edge of the site that no longer exists. I was also shown the burial place of two Black individuals at the site, in the northeast corner of the site. It is suspected that there are more Black people buried in that area, still within the grounds of the graveyard itself but isolated off to the site, near the road and allegedly near the ‘whipping tree’, which made my stomach turn to hear. Parks Canada staff informed me that it is likely the burial spot of Rose Fortune, a local Black entrepreneur in the 19th century, a time when being a Black business woman would have been extremely difficult, and she was a well-respected member of the community.

Gravestone carved by either the Halifax Carver or James Hay (photo by author 2022).

Finally, I spent several hours in the Old Burying Ground, in Halifax! I met up with local gravestone and former curator of the Nova Scotia Museums, Deborah Trask, and Vanessa Smith, current archaeological curator, to take a look at some of the historic gravestones at the site and explore the history of the carvers. I cannot remember if the image I included here was carved by the ‘Halifax Carver’ as Deborah deemed them, or local carver James Jay who followed them and possibly took over some of the Halifax Carver’s unfinished stones, but look at the detail! Many of these locally carved C18th stones in Halifax were carved from ironstone, which you can see in this photo in the spots of iron rusting on the surface of the stone. The Halifax Carver seemed to have coated their stones in a black substance which is still unknown to keep the ironstone from rusting as quickly, which seems to have worked because they are all in excellent shape. It was a great time, learning about the site from Deborah and Vanessa, thank you for showing me around, and pointing out the sites of other nearby burial grounds too!

Overall, the research trip was a great success in my eyes. While the archives may not have had much information about 17th-century Nova Scotia sites, I know there are a number of digitized marriage/death/birth records from 17th-century Acadian communities such as Annapolis Royal that are included in their online catalogue that I have only begun to look through. Visiting the Garrison Graveyard in person was amazing, and really helped me understand the layout of the site, which will be helpful for my near-future analysis during my dissertation writing! And I got to see some old friends and spend time in Halifax, the city that is technically my hometown! Now, it’s back to finishing my hexfoil manuscript and getting in order to start properly writing my dissertation. Only a few more sites to nail down and I’ll be ready to start my analysis!

The pictures below show the corner of the Old Burying Ground, from which you can see the poorhouse burial ground (left), the old Methodist burial ground (centre), and the Catholic burial ground (right). It’s quite the burial landscape, much of which is not obvious to passersby today! On the right is myself with my friends Elizabeth and Stephen, filming some heritage education content!

Looking forward to continuing with my project, and my next research trip in the next year!
As always, thank you for reading! šŸ™‚

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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