Wednesday, January 1, 2014

See that my grave is kept clean: some thoughts on ‘graveyard ephemera’

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If you’ve known me for any length of time, poked around on the ‘back issues’ of this blog, or even had a browse through my publications on my page, you’ll get a fair inkling that I like gravestones. It’s not too uncommon in an archaeologist – even one such as myself who dedicated most of a career to the prehistoric periods. Like many, my chief interest is in the earlier gravestones from the early to mid 1700s, and into the early 19th century. At a push, I can show curiosity in markers from the mid 19th century onwards, but there is a clear feeling that more recent memorials are less interesting, and less worthy of study. I think I may be alone among archaeologists in having once published a paper (Chapple 2000) that sought to demonstrate that modern memorials – even up to the 1980s – were part of a broad, unbroken continuum, not something separate and apart from the older material. I make this point to indicate that despite my predisposition towards the newer memorials as objects worthy of study, I have still considered them less worthy than the older examples. It’s not that surprising – in every age, the antiquarian or archaeologist have viewed the ubiquitous remains closest to their own time as less worthy of study that older artefacts. Obviously, this is not confined to how students of the past assign worth. Value – either the concept of ‘worthy of study’ or monetary worth – is distinctly tied to scarcity. How else could we rationalise the notion that any given weight of a shiny yellow metal is worth more than an equivalent weight of, say, dark, fertile soil? It is not my intention to debate the rights or wrongs of economics. However, it is this notion that every archaeologist with an interest in the post-Medieval period (1700s and after) has had to face. There has long been a tacit understanding that a hierarchy exists and that while ‘post-Med’ studies are all well and good, they are not truly as important as ‘real’ archaeology – i.e. the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, the Romans, or whatever your own preferred period of study is. Thankfully, this impression is changing within archaeology, even if only slowly. There are now a number of vibrant and thriving organizations dedicated to the archaeology of more recent times. These include The Society for Historical Archaeology in the US, the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology in the UK, and IPMAG on the island of Ireland. Even still, I have often heard the old adage that post-Medieval excavations keep all the rubbish that other excavations throw away.
Teampúl Deirbhile, St. Dervila’s Church, near the tip of the Mullet peninsula, Co. Mayo (Dunraven 1875)
Even if ‘post-Med’ is starting to find more acceptance and prominence, the sub-discipline of what may be termed ‘modern archaeology’ still has a long way to go. One well-known example is the popular and professional reactions to the famous Transit Van excavation. It has occasionally crossed my mind to ponder on the question: how awful does it have to be before archaeologists refuse to study it? Considering the propensity for archaeologists to literally study piles of old rubbish, from a towering mound of disused amphorae in Rome, to the waste from George Washington’s house, right down to the Tucson Garbage Project, I’ve often presumed that there’s pretty much no limit to what we’ll consider investing our time and cerebral effort in. In events unrelated to these questions, I was recently invited to partake in a discussion on what was described as ‘graveyard tat’ – all the ugly, tasteless, plastic clutter that (in every sense) profanes our graveyards as the places of quiet, contemplation, mourning, and ‘rest eternal’ that they ‘should’ be. I would make it quite clear that I considered this an archaeological question only in so far as it despoiled the beauty of the graveyards – especially our older ones where the recent dead lie shoulder-to-shoulder with their ancestors, often in the shadow of a suitably decaying Medieval ruin. In places like this, I feel, that this form of plastic tat is visually distracting, out of place, and downright ugly – it is repulsive and should, rightly, be condemned. No matter how great the appetite for the archaeology of what one may term ‘more recent times’, I think that only the most ardent would readily embrace this awfulness as an area of study. Well, that’s where I had started in my thinking.

However, after having looked at quite a few pictures of this kind of stuff, I find that I have changed my opinion … well, up to a point. I still see this material as horrible tat, but looking on this as archaeologists, we should be aware that – however horrible it is – it is still relatively ephemeral and, in the grand scheme of things, will not last too long on a grave. In a hundred years’ time they will be gone, leaving only the ‘clean’ stone monument. I’m not suggesting for even a second that we should regard them as high art. Nor should we think any better of them as artefacts, no matter how much genuine affection and sorrow they represent by those bereaved. Nonetheless, I do think we should be recording a sample of them – in all their hideous glory – as an archive for future generations of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians. Once I started thinking about it, I realised that like so many things, this type of material is susceptible to geographic and temporal change. Simply put, what an individual chooses to place on the final resting place of a friend or relative changes over time and locality – what was appropriate (and available) in Ireland or Iceland in 1980 is not likely to be the same in, say, Devon or Dubrovnik in 2010. I remember as a child growing up in the west of Ireland attending many funerals where Perspex domes of plastic flowers were placed on the grave. I may be wrong, but I cannot recall having seen any of these for quite some time. During the 1990s, when I spent some time working in the graveyards of Killora and Killogillen, in Craughwell, Co. Galway, I did find some surviving evidence of them – shattered opalescent fragments of the domes, and weathered, decayed, petals still clinging grimly to the rusting wires that once held it all together. Where they survived best was when, past all utility as items of decoration or devotion, they were swept away into quiet corners of the cemetery to lie forgotten in midden piles, or pushed out of sight and out of mind under flat ledgers. One way or another – they’re gone. I honestly doubt that you could find a new one for sale (even if you wanted to) – times have moved on and fashion, along with the ties of manufacture and availability have moved with them. My searching on the internet has been far from exhaustive, but I am unable to find clear images of material like this – certainly not in its pristine state. Going further back, I have dim memories as a child of seeing older versions of this form of item, glass domes over artificial flowers, protected by a wire cage. Again, through the power of the Google image search, I’ve found something similar from a graveyard in Wales. I’m sure that the diligent researcher with ample time to spare could find more examples from closer to their period of manufacture, but I doubt that it could be done with anything approaching ease.

Decaying glass dome protected by rusting wire cage.
Photo: Pete Birkinshaw/Binaryape.
I think, perhaps, the reasons that we find this detritus so objectionable are manifold. In the first instance, its mass-produced nature seems at odds to the very personal and individual grieving that it represents. Its relative impermanence – certainly in a pristine state – means that for the majority of time that it is publically visible it is either decaying on a relatively new grave, or moldering on a communal cemetery rubbish heap. Tied to this sense of impermanence is the idea that this form of ornament is a relatively modern occurrence. It is pretty easy to fall into this way of thinking – they’re all nasty plastic eyesores, probably with ‘made in China’ or ‘made in Taiwan’ stamped somewhere on them – obviously they’re a modern phenomenon! While this incarnation may be modern, the urge to place symbols of mourning – however impermanent – on the grave of a family member or friend is a strong one and is hardwired into our makeup. I’m sure that there are many examples of older sources out there describing the state of graveyards in times past, but this is my favourite. It is a description of Teampúl Deirbhile, St. Dervila’s Church, near the tip of the Mullet peninsula, Co. Mayo (Dunraven 1875, 107).

The graveyard at St. Dervila’s Church, late 20th century. Source.

“In the midst of a wild and desolate region, it stands in perfect solitude on the summit of a knoll, which rises above a sandy beach, washed by the Atlantic. It is surrounded by a churchyard filled with graves, the great headstones of which are in some instances roughly shaped into crosses, while in others the tomb is marked by portions of wrecked vessels, worn handles of paddles, broken masts, whose jagged ends rising dark against the sky, add indescribably to the weird and desolate aspect of the scene. All these objects, thickly overgrown with grey moss and lichen, have an air of great antiquity”

Today, should you choose to visit the site, it is devoid of all this material. However, it – and all of the local cemeteries – abound in its modern equivalent. I am unwilling and unable to bring myself to celebrate the existence of this visual pollutant, nor do I believe that it has even a modicum of redeeming beauty. Nonetheless, I am beginning to appreciate it as having a previously unconsidered archaeological significance. I now intend to go forth into graveyards to photograph these artefacts in all their magnificent awfulness. Truly, they are horrible and possess no redeeming artistic features (to us, in this time) … and I certainly don’t want any of them over me when my time comes … but no more than the fact that I’m fascinated by the description of the graveyard at Teampúl Deirbhile, I’ve started to think that there will be wonder and interest in the tat of today by the archaeologists of the future!

References & Further Reading
Chapple, R. M. 2000 'A Statistical Analysis and Preliminary Classification of Gravestones from Craughwell, Co. Galway' Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 52, 155-171.

Dunraven, E. 1875 Notes on Irish Architecture. London.

Note: It has been brought to my attention that some of my musical references are a tad on the ‘obscure’ side. Obviously, I disagree … but then I would! For any younger readers, or anyone who has not taken early Blues into their hearts the title of this post is taken from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s 1927 recording ‘See That My Grave Is Kept Clean’. You can hear his version of it here; and Bob Dylan’s 1962 recording here.

As I reread this piece before publication, it suddenly strikes me that there has got to have been some form of serious study of this type of material. Unfortunately, a few sample Google searches have failed to reveal anything of this nature. If you know of/are the author of such research, please let me know & I will add it to the body of the text.

**Update: 2014 January 2
Based on conversations in the comments section below and in various social media outlets, I can recommend the following books:

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