Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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Cataloguing Funerals & Burials in Joshua Hempstead’s 18th-Century Diary

The 1678 Hempstead House. Photo from Preservation CT.

Last year, I wrote a blog post about the 17th-century journals of Samuel Sewall, and my work to catalogue all mentions of funerals and burials that he recorded during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Now that my comps are completed and passed (woo!), and a draft of my thesis proposal has been sent off for comments, I can get back into a bit of research for my dissertation…and blog about it as I go.

To refresh your memory, part of my research into the development of 17th-century burial grounds in the colonial northeast of North America is to explore details of how people were being buried in these spaces. By doing so, we can gain a better understanding of how funerals and burials were being carried out at the time, how people were using the spaces, and how these practices have changed through the decades and centuries.

This is my second diary analysis, and it was also written by a Puritan. Joshua Hempstead (1676-1758) of New London, Connecticut, was a shipwright, carpenter, and gravestone carver / letterer, who is most well known today for the extensive diary he kept between 1711 until 1758. Available online through Archive.org HERE, the diary is an extensive document, over 700 pages, detailing life in the early 18th century in a New England community. While it is a bit beyond the main scope of my project, I thought it would be important to look at examples from the turn of the century as well, for comparison. For those in death studies in this region, Hempstead is well known for his gravestones, especially in the New London area where he was also responsible for constructing many coffins. Due to the many hats he wore in the community, and in direct involvement in death care, Hempstead’s diary offer an exciting look at burials in the period.

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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.

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

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Protect the Grave: The hexfoil in an early mortuary context

If you follow me on instagram, you’ve probably seen a photo of the tattoo on my knee. Surrounded by a cluster of foliage, most of which are native plants of British Columbia, is a bold, black hexfoil. I’ve talked about this symbol on the blog before but today I wanted to a bit more of a deep dive into the symbol’s history, it’s distribution, and it’s significance in a mortuary context. If you’re interested in this topic, keep an eye out for my upcoming book “Burial and Death in Colonial North America“, where I will be discussing hexfoils in a mortuary context in much more depth.

Consider this the taster!
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Curious Canadian Cemeteries: South side / Old Non-Denominational Burial Ground, Ferryland, Newfoundland.

This site is near and dear to my little heart, perched on the hill west of the historic site of the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland, Newfoundland. It was one of the sites I explored during my MA thesis (see my publications for a link to the thesis, or wait a few months for the book!), and come to think of it I could very easily populate this series with all NL sites from my thesis research. Would anyone want to read that? Maybe?

Exposed to the often harsh and relentless winds of the North Atlantic ocean, anyone visiting graves in Ferryland in the 18th and 19th centuries would have had an unobstructed view of any passing ice bergs or whales!

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View of the Colony of Avalon from the burial ground (photo by author 2015)

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Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Brick Street Cemetery, London, ON

It’s that time again friends, where we sit down to highlight yet another one of Canada’s Curious Canadian Cemeteries. Today, lets take a little look at the Brick Street Cemetery in London, Ontario, its history, ongoing protection, and its stone carvers.

I have only visited this site once myself, during London’s Door’s Open event several weeks ago. Doors Open is an event where historic sites and buildings around a city will open their doors free of charge to the public, and it’s a great way to go see museums and heritage sites in your community that you might not otherwise have a chance (or the funds) to visit! We visited several historic sites around town over the course of the weekend, but spent the most time at the Brick Street Cemetery.
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Built Heritage, Mortality, & Decay

As I may or may not have explained on this blog already, I work in built heritage. That means that I deal with the archaeology of standing buildings. In North America it is often referred to as cultural heritage, and is a facet of historical archaeology that I am quite passionate about (and who doesn’t like getting to go into old houses all the time!).

Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of reading into the conscious curation of decaying built heritage. It’s a very interesting topic, and while it’s hard to get away from the mentality that all old buildings are worth saving / preserving / restoring, curation of decay doesn’t mean justification for letting something fall into disrepair that perhaps does need some restoration but rather the ability to see and to interpret the change of a space, its meaning, and its place in history as it becomes overgrown, crumbles, or falls.

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Curious Canadian Cemeteries: Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

I’ve been living in Ontario for a few months now, but in just a couple of days it will finally be time to complete the second half of the move (i.e. moving the rest of the stuff, the car, and my partner). It’s crazy to think that we are going to be leaving the island so soon, but we will definitely be back for loads of visits.
I thought what better way to kick off part 2 of our move…and part 2 of the Curious Canadian Cemeteries Series, than with a site in St. John’s that I have visited on multiple occasions, and even wrote a paper on: The Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery.

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Yes, that is a tiny out-of-context stone sheep relaxing in the grass.

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Community Mortuary Archaeology & Folklore – New Perlican, Newfoundland

This Saturday I was invited to speak at and participate in a community heritage & folklore event in the town of New Perlican, Newfoundland. New Perlican is located on the eastern coast of the Avalon Peninsula, and has dated back to the 17th-century through records such as the 1675 Berry Census and archaeological evidence of a ‘plantation’ in the area. It is suspected that several of John Guy’s settlers from the 1610 Cupid’s Plantation may have settled in New Perlican in the early 17th century, but there has yet to be any physical evidence of that move identified.

The event I was involved with was a collaboration between the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Heritage New Perlican, and involved something really that I’m pretty passionate about…burial grounds! Students and community volunteers would join us for the day to learn about the history burial places in this historic town, hear about the town’s history from members of the Heritage group, meet the cemetery cleaning ‘Goats of New Perlican’, and help the community clean up one of their most historic burial spaces. I was there as an additional help supervising the students, to answer questions on burials and gravestones (and have some awesome conversations about headstone preservation with local folks!), and to give a talk about my research as a historic mortuary archaeologist. Also, to map a bunch of gravestones!
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