Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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.


Tweet posted on November 7th, 2019, since deleted. 

Let me start out by saying that fundraising for archaeological endeavours is not new, nor something that is usually frowned upon. Groups like DigVentures in the UK are run by professional archaeologists and raise funds for research and excavation through volunteers who help on the digs, and their contributions to the field are immense! We could not do this job without the support and interest of the public, which is why public archaeology (check out the tag #pubarch on twitter) is such an important aspect of the work that we do.

The issue here, as you can see in the tweet above, is that a gofundme incentive was created as part of the crowd-sourcing that offered the public the option to ‘adopt’ a tomb for a donation of $50.00 USD or more.

This is an ethical issue, as it as prescribes the right, even the pretend right, of an individual over another individual’s grave. No matter how old a grave is, it is still the final resting place of a human being and should be respected as such. However, there is the added layer of colonialism here, because the graves in question are Egyptian, a region whose archaeology, including the tombs and mummies, have historically been decimated by the established white antiquarians of the 19th – 20th centuries. Allowing pretend ownership over these tombs is allowing the continuation of this narrative, this assumed ownership over the past.

This raises the question, who owns a grave? I’ve written about an extension of this topic in the past, ‘when is a grave no longer a grave‘, and in short the answer is simple: the deceased. The longer answer would include their ancestors, their families, and their culture. Some museums and art galleries have an ‘adopt an artifact / painting’ program, where the money from the program goes towards the conservation of those objects, but you know what those objects are not? Human remains. The Museum of Ontario Archaeology’s Adopt an Artifact program says it well when they wrote “a symbolic way to show your appreciation of Ontario’s archaeological and cultural heritage, connect with your favorite object, and support the museum.

I’m sure that sentiment is what the gofundme page was going for when they decided to launch an ‘adopt a tomb’ incentive, but pretending ownership over the dead, especially the dead from a country who has already suffered the brunt of colonial impact on their heritage, isn’t ok. As a burial ground specialist and historic archaeologist, I would not dream of suggesting people could own other peoples’ graves, and am not happy to see others suggesting it be done.

The dead belong to themselves, to their people, to their history, to their land. Even when a burial ground has been ‘abandoned’ where I live today, the municipality is assigned as its caretaker, but not as its owner.

Thanks so much for reading.



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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!


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

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Significant Women of Brick Street Cemetery: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell

It’s a common theme throughout history, that women’s stories are swept under the rug, intentionally or not, to make way for the stories of history’s great men. Of course, with cis women, trans, queer, and otherwise non-gender-conforming individuals being present throughout history, the tales of ‘men’ are only a small fraction of the whole story.

Gravestones from the 19th century have a common formula when it comes to remembering women, and that is by labelling them as wife of… and often not providing any additional information about them. Often nothing much is recorded throughout history about them either, making it even more difficult to find anything else out other than who they married. Today I’d like to talk about three young women who are buried at Brick Street Cemetery, and were early settlers in the area in the mid-19th century: Phoebe McNames, Silvany Tunks, & Hannah Caldwell.

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Gravestone Conservation 2019: Week 2

Hello all, welcome back to another ‘updates from the field’ style post, where I’d like to discuss what we got up to at the cemetery this week! It was an extremely busy week, and we got quite a lot accomplished, and learned a load of new skills throughout it all that I am very excited to use throughout this program and hopefully throughout my career as a historical archaeologist.


Little woodchuck friend coming to see why we were digging so many holes in their field! 

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The Geologic Composition & Weathering of Gravestones.

If you are new to the study of burial markers and don’t come from a geologic background or have prior knowledge in basic geology, grasping the differences in materials found in burial grounds might seem like a monumental (hah) task! In this post, we will be discussing the composition and problems/perks of different stone types that are found across North American historical burial grounds, as well as common erosion issues that can be seen across these stones.


Woodland Cemetery, London. ON. (Photo by author 2019).

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Evolution of roman lettering in Newfoundland: A case study at Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery, St. John’s, Newfoundland

Today’s post is based on ongoing research that started as a prompt for a term paper in grad school. I’ve been conducting research on roman lettering development on upright gravestones for some time (there is a paper on the way, I swear. It’s bogged down in reviewer/edits land but it will be out there eventually!), and this research was based on my interest in the development of lettering styles on gravestones. More specifically, the development of lettering styles carved in a ‘remote’ area, that might not have access to lettering books or script trends as carvers in more urban centres in the British Isles were. Lets delve in, shall we?


St. John’s Harbour (photo by author 2016)

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When is a grave no longer a grave?

This is a topic I’ve discussed with colleagues on several occasions, and most recently in a really engaging thread on twitter: When is a grave…no longer a grave? If ever, at what point might that happen? There isn’t one definitive answer to this question, and the understanding of a grave, its significance, and longevity are rooted in our backgrounds, cultures, and society.  I’ve finally found some time to sit down and write up the results of the discussion, and share some thoughts with you all.


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