Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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You’ve gotta hand it to them: A Look at Limb Graves

Possible limb gravestone at Malew Churchyard, near Castletown, Isle of Man (photo by author, 2011).

Today’s post topic came to me in a dream. The other night I dreamt that I was doing a public education event somewhere, and that I was teaching kids about the grave of a man who lost his leg. Rather than giving the limb over to the doctors, he felt that this piece of himself deserved a proper burial, gravestone and all! I showed the kids a photo of the gravestone that had a strange wood umbrella behind it…and because this was a dream, I also had a cream highlighter stick that I would twist up and show the carved wood umbrella on the stick. Maybe it was branding? I’m not sure, it was a weird dream, but I woke up determined to tell you all about one of my favourite burial quirks: Limb Burials.

The idea of wanting to preserve or honour one’s amputated body parts, whether they were removed for one’s health or as the result of an act of violence, is not a new one. You may have heard of the woman a few years ago who had the bones from her own foot preserved and re-articulated after amputation? (There are human bones in that link, warning) That’s an extreme example, but very cool! The more common option was to have an actual burial, gravestone and all.

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Archaeology of Death: The Ocean Ranger Memorial Garden

This blog post was written by Megan MacKinnon, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Megan!

The sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig was a tragedy that felt close to home for Newfoundlanders for many reasons. The rig, a workplace for many Newfoundlanders, sank just off the shores of St. John’s.  The majority of crewmates who passed in the accident resided in Newfoundland, leaving the Island to grieve for their loss. The sinking of the rig beginning discussions of workplace safety offshore struck a chord with many Newfoundlanders finding trade jobs in remote, and often dangerous situations. In many ways, it is safe to say all of Newfoundland felt the loss that dark day in February.

Figure 1: Map of Newfoundland with Ocean Ranger location point (Collier, 2010)

The Ocean Ranger was the world’s largest semisubmersible oilrig, about 315km off the coast of St. John’s Newfoundland within the Hibernia oil field (Collier, 2010).

 “The Ocean Ranger was a self-propelled, semi-submersible offshore drilling rig, designed and built by ODECO (Offshore Drilling and Exploration Company) for use in offshore oil exploration. At 121 metres long, 80 metres wide, and 103 metres tall, it was the largest rig of its kind when it was launched in 1976.” (Collier, 2010) On February 15th of 1982 tragedy struck when a winter storm passed over the area forecasted winds of 90 Knots and waves up to 37 feet, sinking the rig (Collier, 2010). The Federal-Provincial Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster found the cause of the rig’s sinking to be that seawater entered its ballast control room through a broken porthole and caused an electrical malfunction in the ballast panel controlling the rig’s stability (Pitt, 2006). This accident took the lives of all 84 crewmembers, 56 of which were Newfoundlanders (Pitt, 2006). The tragedy was felt across the entire province and resulted in inquiries about workplace safety for the workers of the rig. The Royal Commission on the Ocean Ranger Marine Disaster determined that much of the hazards could be attributed to flaws of the workplace itself, “the shattered portlight and chain lockers that were not water tight, for instance. The crew did not fully understand what to do in the case of an emergency involving the Ranger’s ballast control system. The lifesaving equipment was judged inadequate, and the crew lacked training in its use (Collier, 2010).” These combined factors contributed to the great loss of life in Newfoundland that day and began an important discussion of workplace safety for those who work away within our province.

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Archaeology of Death: Terry Fox Memorial, St. John’s

This blog post was written by Calum Brydon, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Calum!

In a small park behind the Port Authority Building in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, stands a bronze statue of a man dipping a prosthetic foot into the Atlantic Ocean. Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope not far from that location on April 12, 1980 (“Terry Fox Commemorated,” 2012). He set out to run across Canada, on one leg, asking for each Canadian to donate one dollar to cancer research, so that he could raise 24 million dollars for people who had been put in similar situations as he had been three years earlier. As most know, Fox’s marathon ended on September 1, 1980, outside of Thunder Bay, Ontario, after his cancer had spread to his lungs. He had already traversed parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario, running an average of 42 kilometres a day and having already raised millions of dollars. Fox surpassed his fundraising goal of 24 million dollars on February 1, 1981, but he died several months later, in June 1981 (“Terry Fox,” 2020). Over the next 40 years since the Marathon of Hope began, over 800 million dollars have been raised for cancer research in Terry Fox’s name (“Facts about Terry,” 2020).

Fox is commemorated worldwide through annual Terry Fox runs, and several schools, roads, and parks bear his name across Canada (“Honours,” 2020). Several statues of Fox can also be found across the country. One of these statues is in Thunder Bay, where Fox’s run came to its unexpected end, while sister statues in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador and Victoria, British Columbia, mark the start and planned end points of the Marathon of Hope (“List of Monuments,” 2020).

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Archaeology of Death: ‘Betty’s Statue’: A Grandfather’s Remembrance

This blog post was written by Alison Batstone, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Alison!

The Peter Pan Statue (Branes, 2020)

Above is a photo taken of the Peter Pan Statue located in Bowring Park, St. John’s NL. The statue is centered in the picture, a bronze sculpture of children, animals and plants swirling around a rock perch as Peter stands atop playing flute; most characters, including Peter, are wearing small shifts as clothing. The statue sits on a stone walkway, and is framed by a duck pond and leafy trees. It is autumn, and green, orange and yellow leaves cover the grass and stones behind the monument. (Branes, 2020).

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Archaeology of Death: The Controversial Statue of Gaspar Corte-Real

This blog post was written by Emma Nugent, for the Archaeology of Death undergraduate course in Fall 2020 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, taught by Dr. Meghan Burchell. They graciously allowed it to be posted on Spade & the Grave, thanks Emma!

Image of the statue of Gaspare Corte-Real, the statue is outdoors and his arms are crossed (image from VOCM).

Across from the Newfoundland Confederation building, there is a statue of Portuguese explorer and slave trader, Gaspar Corte-Real (commonly mistaken for John Cabot). It has become one of the many targets in the recent push to remove monuments of slave traders and colonialists internationally. The push to remove this statue is not only because of Corte-Real’s history as a slaver, but also because of the very shady political baggage it carries.

The history of Corte-Real is a short one. He is presumed to have lived between 1450 and 1501. He was a Portuguese explorer who possibly came to Newfoundland, or maybe Labrador, or maybe Greenland in 1501. After reaching Newfoundland (or Labrador, or Greenland) he kidnapped 57 Indigenous people, took them back to Europe to be sold as slaves, then returned to Atlantic waters where he went missing in 1501 (McLeod 2017). One of his brothers searched for him, only to go missing himself in 1502. There was a third brother, but he was denied permission to search for the first two (Marsh 2008). Overall, his impact on discovering the Americas was a very small one, as well as his impact on establishing a Portuguese presence in Newfoundland. What he did was what many European explorers were doing at the time, kidnapping Indigenous people and going missing. His history isn’t even very conclusive, and he clearly isn’t well remembered (considering he is mistaken for many other prominent colonialists). All of this begs the question: Why does this guy have a monument, especially in such a prominent location?

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Archaeology of Death: Student Blog Post Mini-Series

Landscape photo at St. John the Evangelist Cemetery, Newfoundland (photo by Dr. Burchell 2020)

Hello readers, I am very excited to be writing this introductory post for you all with Dr. Meghan Burchell, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Dr. Burchell taught the undergraduate course ‘The Archaeology of Death’ this Fall 2020 semester, and I had the honour of being her TA! One of the student’s assignments for the course was to create a ‘blog-style’ post which would explore a monument, mostly within the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, to examine the history and politics of monumentalization. 

Part of the challenge with the course and its assignments this semester was, of course, the fact that it was not face-to-face teaching in light of the pandemic. Adapting to the sudden switch to remote teaching brought to light the importance of creating records for, and digitizing said records for, historical artifacts and sites such as graveyards. While part of their coursework was to do just that, create digital records and analysing gravestones in Newfoundland, this blogging assignment asked different questions.

Their blogs answered a number of questions, including:

  • “What does the landscape of monuments in Newfoundland and Labrador look like?”
  • “How can we create a digital landscape of monuments, whether they are memorials, graves, or other monumental sites or objects?”
  • “How are people and events commemorated and remembered in Newfoundland and Labrador?” 
  • “What does a memorial tell us about the site / event / person, as well as the people who erected it?”

Everyone did an amazing job on their blog posts, and in the end I selected six examples to post on Spade & the Grave, that I thought fit well into the theme of this website and with the research that I undertake in death and burial archaeology. The next six posts, written by undergraduate students at MUN, examine monuments and their meaning across the province. In this series we will look at the Peter Pan Statue in Bowring Park, the Terry Fox statue by the harbour in St. John’s, the Statue of Amelia Earhart in Harbour Grace, the Ocean Ranger Disaster Monument, the Renews Grotto, and the controversy of the Gaspar Corte-Real statue. 

It was wonderful to read what the students thought about monumentalization within the province, as well as how these sites impacted their view of the historic events or people they commemorated. Please join us for the series, as we share this series over the last two weeks of 2020!

Student Blog Post Links:

  1. Emma Nugent: The Controversial Statue of Gasper Corte-Real
  2. Alison Batstone: Betty’s Statue – A Grandfather’s Remembrance
  3. Calum Brydon: Terry Fox Memorial, St. John’s, NL
  4. Megan MacKinnon: Ocean Ranger Memorial Garden
  5. Hannah Cooper: Amelia Earhart Statue, Harbour Grace, NL
  6. Jasper Pritchard: The Renews Grotto

Thank you for joining us for this exciting series!


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Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Castleton Cemetery, ON

Hello dear readers, it has been a while since I have written an entry for ‘Curious Canadian Cemeteries’! Today, I’d like to discuss the Castleton Cemetery in eastern Ontario, which I visited while on a camping weekend away. This site was opened in 1828and has been in continuous use for nearly 200 years. The site features many unique gravestones and examples of conservation and restoration that I’m excited to discuss with you all.

The site is located on the traditional territories of the Haudenosaunee, Anishinabewaki, and Mississauga Indigenous peoples (Native Lands 2020). All images in this post were taken by me on November 14th, 2020.

Sign at the entrance to the cemetery.
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Death & Decay in Cultural Heritage Structures

Front Facade

This post was written by myself, Robyn Lacy, and my friend and colleague (and often collaborator) Elizabeth Cushing, of Cushing Design Group.

We have worked in cultural heritage together since 2017, and have spent a lot of time discussing the preservation and curated decay in heritage structures. I’ve written about curated decay before on my blog, but today we wanted to discuss decay within structures, and highlight the design and historical significance of this Georgian style home in Upper Canard, Nova Scotia. All photographs in this post were taken by Elizabeth Cushing, unless otherwise noted.

This magnificent Georgian country estate, complete with summer kitchen to the left of the main house, was constructed in 1790 and was the childhood home of Sir. Frederick Borden (no relation to Charles Borden, who developed the Borden System, which is used to define the location of all archaeological sites in Canada). Sir Frederick William Borden (1847-1917) was a physician, businessman, militia officer and politician who practiced medicine in Canning, while also investing in ships, utilities and real estate. He was an investor in the Cornwallis Railway Company Limited, the Canning Water and Electric Light, Heating and Power Company Limited and the Western Chronicle, and owned two 125 to 150 ton vessels. 

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Photography of Gravestones for a Historic Survey: A How-To Guide

This weekend, as the leaves are starting to change colour across Ontario, I have been thinking about gravestones (are you surprised?). More specifically, taking excellent photos for your historic survey of a burial ground. Of course, you can take photos any way you see fit, but this blog post is a guide to taking standard grave marker photos that optimise light, angle, and people that you have helping with the survey. Below, you will find examples of best practices for standardised gravestone photography, and some good examples of *not* to do.

I hope you can find some helpful tips in this post to take to your next project, or to share with a community that you are working with! All the photographs in this blog post were taken by me, unless otherwise noted.

The author kneeling to photograph a headstone (photo by Ian Petty 2020)
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Serviceberries, Winter Deaths, & Spring Funerals

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Service, or Saskatoon, berries (image from wikipedia)

Hello readers, I am excited to let you all know that I will be starting my PhD at Memorial University of Newfoundland (from Ontario for now because of covid) in Historical Archaeology this week! Now that I am no longer in the field as a CRM (cultural resource management) archaeologist, I am hoping to be able to update this site on my ongoing, and upcoming, research and project. Please join me on this morbid research adventure!

Today I wanted to talk about berries, and their association with death and burial. My friend Katie, a fellow PhD student in folklore, sent me a very interesting article this morning by CBC contributor and chef Andie Bulman on berry harvesting in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the article, Bulman (2020) discusses the history of the serviceberry, also known as the saskatoon berry (which is what I know them as). I was surprised that they have a potential connection to my research on winter funerals!

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