In this introductory online lecture, Professor Harold Mytum from the University of Liverpool reveals how graveyard research allows us to understand more about the past. He looks at the ways individual stone carvers can be identified, how you can notice regional styles, and how shapes and materials used for memorials change in popularity over time. Some of the designs on stones carry meaning, and they also change in popularity over time.
Adapted from: Recording and Analysing Burial Grounds © Harold Mytum and the Council for British Archaeology, 2019, 2020
Everyone in Britain has burial grounds in their locality which are of historical value. Yet, threats from vandalism and natural erosion mean that we need to record graveyard evidence before it is lost. Past generations cared for graveyards, as they contained the memorials and remains of friends and relatives. In today’s more mobile society, local identity and commitment to place has become eroded; therefore, it is even more important that historic graveyards should not be forgotten, but rather treasured as repositories of local culture.
There is much intrinsic interest and support for graveyards and the monuments they contain, but they can offer more than the emotional and amenity value of an open space. As evidence of past generations, their attitudes to life and death, and the social identities and belief structures of their communities, they are invaluable. What is more, they contain memorials which are often the only commissioned piece of work that many stonemasons have left for us to study, providing a unique source of information on a craft which has undergone numerous changes over the last three centuries. Graveyards certainly deserve a fuller study than almost all have hitherto received.
Whilst many gravestones have been recorded through having their inscriptions transcribed, there has been little other recording and only piecemeal analysis of graveyards, cemeteries and their monuments. The advice and information available on this website demonstrate how graveyards and their monuments can tell us much of intrinsic value about the past. The burial ground provides a fixed point with material traces of many people of significance in past communities, and the monuments literally touchstones of local history and culture. This can be on an individual or family scale, at local level, or can be part of a wider regional study. Moreover, many local studies would themselves assist in the understanding of wider national trends. These can be further compared at an international level with other parts of Europe and colonial areas, notably North America and Australia where other work has already been undertaken. In historical archaeology (the study of more recent times) the need to work at the local level to help inform trends at a much larger level, allows an interested amateurs and groups to contribute an important record to a wider debate.
Completing a successful survey depends on organisation and planning, diligence and commitment. It is often desirable to spread various stages of the work through the seasons, and, for larger projects, perhaps over several years. It is therefore essential that consistent procedures are applied so that the final end product justifies the effort expended. The guidance provided here is based on Prof. Harold Mytum’s many years of experience in carrying out burial ground surveys in the UK, Ireland, and abroad.
By being systematic in the way that data is collected and stored, one can ensure that dataset coherent at the end, helping you and others have confidence in your results. Our recording methodology has been designed so that in the future, researchers will be able to use your data to investigate a variety of different subjects. Importantly, by using our recording methodology you (and future researchers) will also be able to compare the results from your survey with the results from similar surveys of other sites. The best way to do this is through the new publicly-accessible Burial Spaces Research Database, built as part of the DEBS project and specifically designed to accommodate survey data produced using our methodology and guidance.
By following our methodology and using our resources, you will:
For surveys focused on the material form of monuments
Broad type (e.g. Headstone, Tomb, etc), date of memorial, condition of memorial, measurement
For surveys focused on commemorated people
Surname, forename(s), date of death, age at death.
For more information, please see our dedicated guidance on recording. If you have data from a previous survey that did not use our methodology and resources, please see our additional guidance on dealing with legacy data.
With an enthusiastic team of volunteers, archaeological surveys of burial grounds are relatively inexpensive, but there are some tasks that you might need money for. These include:
The ADS is the recommended digital repository for heritage data not only for the National Lottery Heritage Fund, but for many other organisations too. As such, costs for digital archiving will be eligible for inclusion in most funding grants from a range organisations across the country. However, please examine all funding specifications carefully to ensure that your project is eligible for the grant you are applying for.
It is important to think about the long term future of your data at the outset of your project. As outlined above, there is much to be gained from studies that set individual burial grounds within wider regional and national trends in commemoration. These kinds of studies only become possible through datasets that are a) produced using a standardised methodology and b) readily available to be interrogated. To address these needs, the DEBS project has worked with the Archaeology Data Service (ADS), an accredited digital archive with over 20 years of experience, to provide a simple system for the preservation of your data, which includes a publicly accessible database for facilitating exciting new research.
Depositing your survey dataset with the ADS will ensure that it is professionally curated in the long term, easily accessible for future re-use, and made available to the public free of charge. This means that the costs to preserve data in the long-term must be obtained from the data depositors. It is important that you consider these costs at the start of your project and factor them into your funding proposals.
Please see our guidance on archiving for more information