Planning the Burial Ground

Drawing a Plan

  1. In the field
  2. Adding contours
  3. Surveying with high technology
  4. The finished plan
  5. Conclusion

Adapted from: Recording and Analysing Burial Grounds © Harold Mytum and the Council for British Archaeology, 2019, 2020

An accurate plan of the burial ground is essential for many reasons. The most obvious is that it allows the easy location of particular memorials for further study, but the plan also records their position for posterity and allows an analysis of the development of the graveyard to be carried out. The addition of the other features found in the graveyard or cemePltery, such as paths, trees, buildings and seats, is also important as a record of how the area was laid out at the time when the survey was undertaken. The inclusion of these features on a plan aids the finding of particular stone on the ground, and gives a much better idea of the physical context of the memorials. Landscaping, vegetational planting schemes, and deliberately created and managed vistas are or were important in many burial grounds. The plans are also valuable for family historians trying to locate a ground, and for burial ground managers to know where the memorials are, and link to the recorded information about them.

Many burial grounds which are still in use will already have a working plan showing all the known plots. These plans will record all the more recent burials even if there is no marker, but they may well be incomplete, particularly for the earlier part of this century and before. Moreover, they are often not a carefully measured plan, even if beautifully drawn. A copy of such a plan would be sufficient to begin graveyard monument recording, but the production of a properly measured survey should be a priority on most projects. Producing an accurate, measured plan seems daunting to those with no experience, but if approached in a methodical manner it is not so difficult. If a local college can be persuaded to undertake the survey as a project, then this is ideal, but it is still necessary to know what should be included and the degree of accuracy required.

If you do not have access to a measured plan, or you are unsure as to how to obtain or create one, the burial ground management may be able to help – they may also require one and can help get one made. Most dioceses now expect churches to have an accurate plan, and they can provide advice on local providers, as may conservation architects who work with churches. However, you may wish to start your survey and can manage with a sketch plan to start with, so advice on making both a sketch and measured plan by a group is set out below.

In the field [back to top]

There are now many ways in which a plan of a burial ground can be created that is fit for purpose. New methods of scanning and mapping are constantly being developed, though some are expensive at present and may still require some work by the graveyard recording team to make them suitable for the task. Making a plan yourself means that you really learn about the burial ground and its monuments, and by doing this first there is the advantage of knowing exactly what is present, and something about the range and character of the monuments but also the vegetation and topography of the site.

Sketch plan

It may be possible to start recording memorials from a crude sketch plan, and the author has done many surveys like this, but it is easy to miss stones and so have to give additional numbers out of sequence at a later stage. Also, it can be difficult for others to comprehend the sketch, with problems frequently arising in correlation of the measured survey with the record forms and sketch plan. This is especially the case in overgrown areas.

Sketch plans need to be drawn up so that each part of the burial ground – defined by boundaries, paths, buildings and perhaps notable trees or tombs – each sit easily on a sheet of paper. It should be drawn such that each headstone is marked with a line c. 4 mm long, as this gives a scale sufficient to add numbers and other annotations. Try to draw the headstones in lines, marking them off that line- or in a different orientation – as you see it. Add paths, trees and bushes. Annotate a scatter of memorials with names or distinctive features so that others can understand your plan and locate where particular memorials are whilst recording. Be ready to rub out parts of the plan and start again if some elements start ‘drifting’ distinctly out of line with other portions. It is possible to use a limited range of symbols to indicate different monument types, which will also make the sketch map more useful. An example of a sketch map is shown.

For some areas, the satellite imagery is of such high resolution that it is possible to identify individual headstones and even footstones. If this is the case, most or all of the plan may be obtained from the satellite imagery. Areas under trees or more overgrown may need additional recording, and the whole plan obtained from satellites requires ‘ground truthing’ and checking before the survey begins, but this will increasingly be a way of getting an excellent starting pointy for the site mapping. Examples of burial ground surveys from the author’s research projects (from the USA and Australia) are illustrated; each required minimal adjustment to produce these plans.

Although the accuracy of the plan should be stated, a completely accurate survey is not absolutely crucial for the success of the project. Any plan which marks all the major features and allows the location of the graves is a considerable asset to anyone using the records, and allows subsequent researchers to find the location of particular monuments on the ground. A more accurate map can always be produced later. Although many memorials do mark exactly the position of those buried, in churchyards there has been considerable amounts of tidying up, realigning and repositioning of monuments, and so many have moved slightly, and some a great deal, from their original locations. If excavation were to take place, and burials identified on the basis of standing memorials, then a specific and very accurate plan would be needed for that purpose, but it is not worth attempting such a record without very good reason.

Measured plan

Survey can be carried out using traditional methods, or with the high technology equipment often seen beside roads and on building sites. Most of the discussion below assumes a relatively low level of technical equipment, but if you can persuade someone with the equipment and expertise to lend a hand, this will save a lot of time and produce a very accurate map. Further details are given later in this document.

The finished plan should be at a scale of 1:200 or, with a large graveyard, 1:250 or even 1:500. Extremely large burial grounds and cemeteries can be broken down into sections and planned separately. These sections should be based on blocks of the graveyard, divided by paths and other features, and a plan at smaller scale should show how the different section plans fit together to create the whole. Some graveyards have clear extensions which may even be divided by walls or hedges. These can easily be planned separately, and then joined together later. You should use metric measurements, as these are easier to scale, are the standard system for such work, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Pace out the burial ground to estimate dimensions and so decide on the scale, or use a large scale Ordnance Survey map or even a satellite image, for example from Google Earth may be clear enough to provide a suitably clear boundary outline to form the basis of a sketch map for initial survey.

Most plans can be produced just using ranging poles (2m tall red and white poles, but you can manage with tall painted canes as long as they are thick enough to be robust) and 30m or 50m tapes. These can be purchased a builders’ merchants or even some DIY stores. It may be possible to borrow these from a college, museum, or local firm of surveyors or estate agents. A base line is necessary to form a fixed feature against which the plan can be measured. This should run for as long a distance and be visible from as much of the burial ground as possible. Ranging poles should be used to set up this line. Place one at each end and add others in between so that their bases are all in a straight line; this is easily achieved by one person standing behind one of the end ranging poles and indicating to another person when they have placed the intermediate rods in line with the ranging pole at the other end. The poles need to be at intervals of less than the length of the tapes so that measurements along the base line can be accurate.

The survey proceeds by setting out a grid or further base lines. These are set up by creating square grids across the site, 10m or 20m across. The first grid squares to be laid out would be those with one side along the base line. To set out a grid, it is very useful to know that the diagonal across a 10m square is 14.14m, and 28.28 across a 20m square, and so on. Using heavy duty plastic pegs in a bright colour such as yellow or red for the corners of the grid means that they are very visible. If the survey is to take several days, these can be left in place overnight unless the burial ground is frequently visited and the pegs might be removed – or moved! Use less visible pegs (e.g. black) and push them well in, noting any nearby memorial to assist relocation, if there is a chance that the more visible pegs might be taken. If it is likely to take weeks rather than days, with intermittent work, some fixed points of the grid can be made more permanent by driving in wooden pegs flush with the grass, though check this acceptable to the burial ground managers.

A tape should be laid out tight and straight along one side of the grid square, it being clear which end is zero. Surveyors’ arrows (also known as ‘poppy pins’) can be used but stout, long, metal knitting needles or nails are effective, and can fix the zero point at one end; stick them in at an angle with the point where they enter the ground is by the grid peg; this is so that when the tape is pulled tight it does not slip off or bend the peg or pin. At the other, the tape can be looped round the grid peg, and held firm by a bulldog clip or clothes peg. The plastic pegs, though visible, are often too thick to be able to hold the zero end of the tape, which is why they mark the grid and other items hold that end of the tape. The grid pegs should stay in until a lot of the survey is finished, in case you have to go back over part of the survey already completed.

Features within the grid squares can be plotted by offsets at right angles from any side, with measuring along the nearest side of the square and then off to the desired point. You can check that the tape is at right angles to the grid line by holding the end of the offset tape at the point to be measured and swinging it across the grid line; when the reading on the offset tape is at its lowest then this shows the accurate right angle on the grid line and along the offset.

It is important that the different parts of the grid can be recognised and it may help to fix labels with co-ordinates or letters linked to the plan to some of the grid pegs. The grid can be numbered using the same conventions as the national grid, with the equivalent of ‘Eastings’ and ‘Northings’, or each square or peg can be lettered or numbered. Whatever the system, it must be marked up on an annotated sketch so that everyone involved in the survey understands it and can refer to it. Use waterproof pens and labels or garden tags, so that dew or rain will not wash the information away.

It is not necessary to grid out the whole of the graveyard fully before beginning a survey, but as work moves away from the base line, some form of checking back to ensure that there has not been an accumulation of small errors is important. This error accumulation can become quite significant if one is working round a churchyard in, say, a clockwise direction, because on getting back to the starting point there may not be a match with the part that was first surveyed. It is better, therefore, if the base line can go through the middle of the burial ground as a whole, or the relevant section, and everything works out from that, Some skeleton framework of a grid across the whole site should be established as soon as possible to prevent ‘drift’. Another advantage of producing a framework grid is that certain recognisable features, parts of the boundary, and any buildings such as the church, can be put on the plan at an early stage. This helps the plotter see if subsequent more detailed measurements appear to be locating monuments and other elements where they should be expected.

When measuring, it is vital that tapes are stretched tight and straight, and kept horizontal. On sloping ground this can be particularly problematic, and it is even more important in such situations that the framework grid is accurately set out so that any minor errors within a square never get out of hand. As the plan is only being drawn up at, say, 1:200, then 10cm on the ground only represents 0.5mm on the plan. Providing that the measurement does not form part of the framework grid, it is clearly not important if any one measurement at this scale is just a few centimetres in error. Overgrown areas can be particularly difficult to survey with tapes, and it is best if they are tackled when vegetation is at its lowest, in the spring. Where all or part of the burial ground is being managed with ecological conservation in mind, it is important to discover when would be an appropriate time of year to carry out the mapping. The ecologists would also value having a burial ground plan, so that they can use it to mark up areas of particular interest, so you may all be able to join forces.

Care needs to be taken when particular features are drawn up so that they make sense. Headstones need only be measured at both ends by offsets, and the thickness of the pencil between these will normally be sufficient to represent the thickness. Kerbstones require only two external corners along one long side to be measured by offsets; the rest can be done with hand tape measurements off this side to allow the rectangle to be marked onto the plan. Larger monuments may just have the base measured in by offsets, and the rest measured by secondary offsets from the base.

The plan should be drawn up in the field on plastic drafting film. This is expensive, but it is archivally stable and does not get damaged in the wet, so is ideal for use outside. It can be bought in sheets (probably best at A3) or on rolls that allow you cut pieced the size you require. If it is matte on one side, that is the side you draw on. The film should be fixed to a board, which can be plywood covered with squared paper. The drafting film can be held in place with masking tape. It is necessary to use a hard pencil – 4H or 6H is recommended - as the surface of the film is very abrasive, and the point of the pencil must be kept sharp; an HB pencil makes a black, smudgy line and required sharpening after every line drawn. 4H is probably best as the 6H tends to produce a line that can be hard to see. Whilst it is possible to count all measurements using the underlying graph paper, it is useful to have a plastic ruler for longer measurements and for drawing up straight lines for headstones, kerbs and tombs. Once the survey is complete, a tracing can be made with a thin black pen which will be much easier to read, and it can be copied in sections for the monument recorders to use and can be scanned for the digital archive. If you work on A3 portions of the site these are also easy to scan.

Think about how to position your plan drawing on the sheet - it is very easy to start drawing and then, almost at the end, discover that you should have placed the plan just a few centimetres further over to fit it all on. With a large area, several plans will need to be fitted together. Ensure that all plans have the grid marked on them so that any later measuring can be done, and also so that different parts can be joined together. When one area is finished, trace off key measured features and adjacent burials onto the next plan and number them, so that the newly measured memorials fall into place, and so linear features such as paths join together when the composite plan is drawn up.

It is possible to plan a graveyard with two people, but it is much easier with three. One should be set up with a drawing board, positioned not too far away from the measurers so they can communicate easily with each other. The board should be held so that the plan is in the same orientation as the plotter so they can easily understand in which direction measurements are being taken. Offsets can then be made from the tape, with the zero end being held at the point to be measured by one person, who can tell the plotter what is being measured. The third person swings the offset tape against the grid line, and notes where this gives its lowest reading. That intersection gives the two measurements - along the grid line and at right angles to it - for the plotter to mark the point on the plan. Do not mark these measurements with X as this makes a scruffy drawing – place dots and join them together with lines as soon as the shape becomes defined. Soon the system becomes automatic, and measurements can be made quite rapidly.

Every so often the survey team should stop and look at the end results and compare them with the evidence on the ground. In this way any inaccurate measurement, incorrect hearing of the numbers, or miscounting of squares in the graph paper can be spotted at an early stage. From the same grid base line, parts of two squares on either side can be measured, thus saving setting out time. It is often easier to measure one type of feature at a time within each square. Start with paths and then move onto memorials, vegetation and other features in turn. It is vital that the numbers of memorials are added as the plan proceeds, and it may even be the planners who carry out the initial numbering as they go. A set of conventions needs to be used on the plan to differentiate monument types and other features such as benches. A suggested list and map is provided as an example [this will be added as a separate download], but any system can be used as long as there is a key written on the plan. Monuments that are only visible as parch marks in the vegetation, or that have been found by probing, need recording in a way which indicates that they are not immediately obvious, as it can be confusing for later users of the map if an expected memorial is not visible on the ground. By using a surveyors’ arrow or knitting needle it should be possible to find the outline of a buried monument, and by leaving pins in at the appropriate points it is then possible to plot it sufficiently accurately.

Where there is a long row of monuments of similar type on the plan, such as headstones, it is helpful not only to identify all the stones with their number but also annotate a few memorials on the plan with some other feature - such as the name of the first person mentioned, or some distinctive decorative motif. These will help recorders working on the row to check that their numbering matches the plan as they go along. It is quite easy to miss a stone or a number in a sequence out, so these checks prevent, or at least reduce, confusion. This annotation can be removed on the final inked-up version of the plan.

Adding contours [back to top]

Though not essential, it is very helpful if the graveyard plan shows contours, i.e. lines which follow along ground of the same height; this is only necessary is graveyard is not fairly flat. The contour plan does not have to be in such detail that each burial plot has contours to show whether there is a grave mound or depression where a coffin has decayed, and the ground sunk. This would have value, but it involves a high level of investment of time and expertise. However, generalised topography can help to explain the location, orientation and height of some memorials. For this, the survey team needs access to a level and staff; this need not be an advanced model. Someone who understands the equipment, and how to use the readings, is needed to at least get this aspect of the survey under way and to help with the processing. There are several basic books on surveying which explain the principles and only the particular issues regarding the graveyard survey are explained below.

Points identifiable on the ground and on the plan, such as next to gravestones and at the foot of trees, should be used. Additional measured-in readings, using the tapes, are only necessary if there are large areas with no such features, perhaps because of partial clearance of memorials. Readings can all be made in relation to any permanent fixed point, but most churches have carved on them somewhere an Ordnance Survey benchmark which has a known height above sea level. This height can be checked with the Ordnance Survey for a fee (modern maps to not have this information printed on them), but it would be cheaper and easier to note down the height from an old large scale Ordnance Survey map (where they are marked and their height given), which includes the churchyard, when the preliminary researches are being made. All the readings should be marked on a drafting film overlay on top of the feature map. Readings can be converted to absolute heights as the survey is done, or afterwards. Once the absolute heights have been calculated, then contour lines can be drawn between the points at appropriate intervals. This can be done using simple maths and interpolation, or all the points can be given grid references and placed within a computer program such as Surfer, which will create a contour plan. Depending on the topography, this might be at 25cm or 50cm intervals.

Surveying with high technology [back to top]

If someone experienced in the use of a Total Survey Station (TST) can be persuaded to carry out the survey, then the work can be undertaken relatively rapidly and very accurately. Moreover, if the data can be downloaded into a computer with CAD facilities it can be drawn up and printed out at various scales. This is very desirable, but only a few groups will have such an opportunity. Even if a TST is available, then much thought still needs to be given to what should be recorded during the topographical survey of the graveyard, and how it will be displayed. It is easy to collect height data and so produce a contoured map whilst measuring the position of stones, but only if this is considered from the beginning.

Some commercial companies are now offering survey services, using point data, to create a site plan. These can be effective, but the expense can be considerable, and sometimes the data and plan remain the company’s copyright, which is not desirable. However, these facilities may become more widely available at a lower price and with better access conditions.

The finished plan [back to top]

After the plan is completed in the field, it should be inked up using drawing ink and a suitable pen. The memorial numbers need to be written neatly and in a large enough format to be legible. A scale should be put on the plan by drawing a line of exact length and the distance on the ground that it represents marked against it, rather than just stating the scale as a ratio (e.g. 1:200). This is vital because if someone makes a reduced copy of the plan, it would still state 1:200 but would no longer be so; with a scale drawn out, that would also be reduced along with the rest of the drawing! North must be accurately marked, and the survey team and the dates of the survey noted. Any conventions used on the plan should be set out in ink in the comer of the plan as a key. At this stage, contours may be added to the plan with monuments, though not with thick, dominant lines that obscure other information; it is best, if possible, to have a separate plan with the boundaries and main features with the contours on it, as an overlay.

Most original plans will be quite large and unwieldy, so for analysis and inclusion in reports it is advisable to acquire reductions (easily obtained from an architect’s shop or by scanning; separate sections can be ‘stitched’ together if they overlap). These are easier to handle and better for analysis such as spatial development and plotting of family groups. For the reduction to be effective, the inked-in version needs to be undertaken with pens which produce lines thick enough to withstand the reduction. It may be best to make a second inked copy, and leave numbering the stones until the reduction has been made. If reduced to A3 or A4, multiple copies can be made and used for various studies. Depending on the analyses to be undertaken, a version of the plan where all the monuments are just marked by open circles, which can then be coloured in on the various copies to indicate aspects of the analysis, could be useful. Examples from the author’s research are provided as examples.

Conclusion [back to top]

Although producing an accurate plan of the graveyard may seem the most technical and daunting part of the project, it is a lasting and valuable achievement. If this is beyond the resources of the group or individual, certainly the programme of recording the memorials should not be abandoned, and a simple sketch plan is sufficient for many purposes. To have no plan of any sort, however, is extremely irritating for those later wishing to find a particular recorded monument on the ground, and IT can lead to much time being wasted during the checking stage if the appropriate memorials cannot be located.

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