Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Dissertation Writing Updates: April 2023


We’re nearly through April suddenly, friends, and as I look out my office window at the snow drifts covering the old wooden boats in my neighbour’s backyard, which is slowly melting away, I decided to do a little update on how my dissertation writing is going! Lets start with a summary of what I’ve been up to, and then how I’ve been structuring my work and project going forward!

I think this picture encapsulates how excited I was in Boston during my research trip.

My blog has been all conference travel and research trips recently, and I feel like it’s been a very hectic last few months. In September 2022, we attended the Death & Culture IV conference in York (& went on our belated honeymoon), then in October I visited Halifax, Nova Scotia, to do some research at the provincial archives and so a site visit out in Annapolis Royal where I had a great meeting with Parks Canada and Mapannapolis staff! In November, I was doing research at home, and then we travelled to Arizona to visit my inlaws and their new house, and we got to see a few very interesting 19th-century burial grounds in the desert! We didn’t go anywhere in December, but I was frantically finishing my 2nd book manuscript which is now with my editor, and resting over the holidays. In the first week of January, we were packed back up and off to Lisbon, Portugal, for the Society for Historical Archaeology’s annual conference and a few days of exploring post-conference! Portugal was amazing, Ian and I both want to go back asap.

Finally, I had a second research trip in February to Boston, Massachussets and the Hudson River Valley, New York! I went to the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections which was just an amazing experience (both for research and for seeing cool archives), and the Mass Historical Society’s archives while in the city, then site visits to Sleepy Hollow and Albany, NY, as well as a meeting with the archaeology staff at the New York State Museum in Albany. Travel is done for the next little bit, and I’m pretty excited to not be in the Toronto airport for a few months!

Last fall, I started my prep for my dissertation! I’ve been saying that I’m in the ‘PhD void’ now, which is after you’ve finished all your program requirements like courses, comprehensive exams, and proposal defence (if your program has all that, I’m looking at you, UK), and your only requirement left to to just write one paper…aka your entire dissertation. No more checkpoints here, friends, unless you make your own! I feel like I need checkpoints or benchmarks, whatever you like to call them, to do work efficiently because otherwise it truly is a void, so I make my own. I started by making an outline for my dissertation and getting feedback on it from my supervisors (which included adding in a methods and theory section because I forgot it completely). I have broken my project down into 8 chapters:

  • Ch 1: Introduction, terminology, chapter outlines
  • Ch 2: Theory and Methods: what is needed to do this project?
  • Ch 3: Background 1, burial practices in Britain, France, and the Netherlands from 1500-1600s. Colonizing into North America
  • Ch 4: Background 2: Site selection and site backgrounds: 10 British settlements, 10 Dutch, and 10 French in northeast North America
  • Ch 5: Organization of settlements, discussing burial landscape spatiality from ch 3 and 4, and what does this tell us about relationships with mortality in these communities?
  • Ch 6: Representation in burial grounds, visibility of Black and Indigenous peoples in C17th colonial burial spaces. Background, why is it hard to see them? Descriptions of funerals and burials from the C17th and early 18th.
  • Ch 7: Community Archaeology and the burial landscape in New Perlican, a case study. Development of a burial landscape in one community over 400 years.
  • Ch 8: Discussion and Conclusions

Ok, so that is what we’re working with. According to my department’s Grad Student Handbook, the length of a PhD dissertation is ‘typically longer than a Masters’, and my Masters was quite long, so I’ve got a pretty decent budget in terms of word count (my Masters was 54k including bibliography and appendices). I’m estimating that each chapter will average to around 7500 words, but so far the two chapters I’ve drafted are longer! I’m estimating the body text will be between 60-80k words, and then we can edit from there!

Here is my writing plan at the moment: I’ll spend 3-4 weeks, or a bit longer if needed but preferably around a month to draft each chapter. I then will send in each chapter draft as I finish it to my supervisors so they get my work as I’m doing it and not in a huge pile that they suddenly need to make sense of later this year. In January after Portugal, into Feb, I wrote the draft of my New Perlican case study and sent it in just before the Memorial University faculty strike started (#FairDealatMUNL etc), and then peaced on my research trip to Boston! A couple weeks ago, I send over my draft of Ch 4, the background of sites, and my supervisors are amazing so they have already sent back comments on that chapter (that I haven’t looked at yet). I’m excited about that one, I learned so much about my sites while researching for the chapter, it’s fantastic!

While writing ch 4, I also completed my sites table! It doesn’t have a fancy name, I think the file name is just ‘sites comparison table’. This is where I’m tracking the site ages and locations, founding religious group(s), location in the community, relationship to religious structures, and relationship to fortifications. It’s a simplified table from my Masters, as I am not trying to make a frequency model and don’t need to collect quite as many variables as a result! That chapter took a little longer than 3ish weeks as a result.

Currently, I’m working on my 3rd chapter, which is the background to the background chapter. It looks at some burial practices that were going on in Britain, France, and the Netherlands up to and through the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and into the early 17th century, when colonization in North America was really taking off. There is more written about the British burial practices than the other two countries regarding this time period, but I’ve found some really interesting data that I’m excited to include for the Netherlands! I’m currently writing up the French background, and then will take a final polish of the chapter early next week. This chapter required a bit more research as I went, so it has taken nearly 4 weeks so far.

Once I send this chapter to my supervisors, I’ll go through the edits for the previous chapter next week, and then hopefully start on the next chapter, which will be the comparison, analysis, and discussion of burial landscape development in the colonial settlements my research is looking at. If anyone is interested in more info about that aspect of my project, definitely let me know!

My current writing goals have me writing around 500 words a day, or 2500 a week (since sometimes, like yesterday when I was in the field, writing just doesn’t happen). Things are going to get a bit more hectic in the summer with lots of family visiting, and some more fieldwork planned, but I’m determined to get my body chapters finished by the end of the summer, with the intro and concluding chapters finished before we head off to Mexico for a friend’s wedding at the end of Oct! That’s loads of time, and I’m really excited to have my first full draft together!

Thanks for reading!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

3 thoughts on “Dissertation Writing Updates: April 2023

  1. “…comparison, analysis, and discussion of burial landscape development in the colonial settlements…”

    Yes! Please. I am very interested in this. I am not finding much on the intentions that went into burials and while some of what I’m interested in are the pioneer burials in early Western expansion south of you area, these places quickly filled with people who were planning and designing burial spaces.


  2. tGoodness Robyn! I am exhausted just reading about the work you have to complete. All the very best in getting through it.


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