Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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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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What’s in my (Field) Bag?

Today’s post isn’t exactly death-related, but I wanted to take a sec and share what I carry with me into the field. If you are starting out in archaeology or are heading into your first field season in cultural resource management (CRM) or a field school, I hope this post can be a little helpful to you!

I’ve been doing fieldwork on and off since 2011, in Ireland, the Isle of Man, the UK, and Canada (BC, NL, and ON), and these items are things that I always like to have on me, and items that have stood the test of time being dragged around the mountains, overseas, corn fields, and most recently the blistering heat and random rain storms of Ontario! Lets dive in and take a look at what’s in my (field) bag!

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My field bag & gear I always carry! 

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An Introduction of Archaeological Illustration: Small Finds Workshop

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Portion of metal axe head (Lacy 2017)

This Friday, June 19th (Juneteenth), I taught an online workshop for the Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeology Society (NLAS). In case you missed the workshop or wanted a refresher after we wrapped up, I’ve turned the step-by-step drawing tips in a blog post. I presented the workshop from the occupied traditional territories of the Anishinaabek, Haudenosaunee, Lūnaapéewak, and Attawandaron peoples, under Treaty 6.

This post is a departure from my typical death and burial posts, The following post uses illustrations I drew specifically for the workshop, and I hope you find it helpful! In the field, I use my drawing skills in a number of ways, and it is always a skill worth investing time into. Please let me know if you have any questions.

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Engagement with Death & Burial: Questions & Comments to a Burial Archaeologist

You might have seen in one of my more recent posts that I was involved in the Doors Open event in London, answering questions and giving tours of two burial grounds that I worked at over the past years: Woodland Cemetery and the Brick Street Cemetery. I’m not going to reiterate that post (though it is linked above if you wanted to check it out), but in reminiscing that even earlier this week, I found myself thinking a bit more about public archaeology of death and burial and how we interpret these topics to the public.

First thing in January I will be presenting a poster at the Society for Historical Archaeology conference with my friend Sarah that follows a little in line with this topic. Our poster is titled “In Memoriam: Challenges in Historic Burial Ground Conservation” and some of these challenges arise when information about conservation and burial grounds are adequately communicated to the public. I’ll be posting more about the poster in Jan, but it bleeds into today’s topic a little!

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A view of Woodland Cemetery, Section R, facing west. 

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Ownership of the Grave: Who owns the Dead?

Some of you who are active in the archaeology twittersphere may have witnessed the incident that occurred last night / this morning / semi-ongoing. As it relates to burial archaeology specifically, I feel the need to expand on my original retweet.

Here is a breakdown: An archaeologist with a huge public platform, who is very well known for her branding of the term ‘space archaeology’ (this, in itself, it a whole other story), posted a request to her followers to help fund her latest archaeological investigations in Egypt, her primary study area.

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On the Eighth Day: An Explanation for Octagonal Dead Houses

Hello again, fellow death & burial enthusiasts! My goal with these posts is to share my love of a type of structure that isn’t widely written about (clearly my goal is to change that), and inform you all about a burial practice that was reserved for the colder parts of the world…Canada, parts of the USA, the UK, etc. My research on the practice has been restricted to North America and the British Isles thus far, though it is also clear through readings that winter body storage had to happen in many other places as well (ie. Iceland). I can’t wait to dive in further!

Today I wanted to talk about why some of these structures are octagonal in Ontario, as opposed to a standard rectangular or subterranean structures. There might be a method to this madness!

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The 15th-century octagonal font at Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, UK. (Image by Michael Garlick 2018)

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