Heaney on Baugher and Veit, 'The Archaeology of Cemeteries and Gravemarkers'

Sherene Baugher, Richard F. Veit
Christopher Heaney

Sherene Baugher, Richard F. Veit. The Archaeology of Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. American Experience in Archaeological Perspective Series. Tampa: University Press of Florida, 2014. 276 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-4971-7; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8130-6193-1.

Reviewed by Christopher Heaney (University of Texas Austin) Published on H-War (March, 2017) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Sherene Baugher and Richard F. Veit’s The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers suggests that the dead remain a talkative bunch, provided that we find right and respectful ways to hear their histories. Among the many examples offered by this survey of recent academic scholarship and unpublished reports on American mortuary landscapes is New York’s eighteenth-century African burial ground, discovered in 1991 by cultural resource management (CRM) archaeologists employed by the US General Services Administration (GSA). New York’s African American community pressured the GSA to halt development of the site and hire a team of archaeologists and biological anthropologists from Howard University, who, with the permission and collaboration of that community, excavated 419 bodies. The dead’s study yielded new insights into the resistant adaptation of enslaved Africans’ mortuary beliefs in colonial Anglo-America before their reinterment in Ghanian mahogany coffins at what became the African Burial Ground National Monument.

The African Burial Ground project is today a “model for other scholars working with descendant communities” precisely because—as Baugher and Veit note—its execution was such a departure from past archaeological practices (p. 31). If the field’s raison d’être for much of its history was the interpretation of human and material remains encountered via excavation, that work in America is mapped onto clear hierarchies of race, class, and colonialism. Unlike Europe, where nineteenth-century archaeologists interpreted the often anonymous remains encountered in comparable urban excavations in national, ancestral terms, their contemporaries in America—to a man, white—focused on interments of Native Americans, whose remains were confiscated and made subject to the racialized hierarchies of pre-national history, and whose mourning descendents were actors to confound, not to seek for collaboration. Non-indigenous mortuary interments, by contrast, were mostly ignored, out of respect for European American descendants whose Christian cemeteries were protected by the law or, also disquietingly, out of a lack of interest in other ethnic groups.

The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers is a synthesis of professional and CRM archaeologists’ last half century of attempts to correct for those past occlusions by involving descendant populations and shifting the spotlight of research onto European, African, and other non-indigenous burial sites. The authors discuss what has been learned without excavation, by attending to aboveground gravemarkers—“the ultimate historical artifact: ... part material culture and part document” (p. 2). Baugher and Veit write primarily for archaeologists, providing a detailed accounting of the developments in that field’s literature and methodological concerns. Their historical conclusions are not earth-shattering—that changes in gravestones and cemeteries reflected shifts from colonial European American understandings of death as a great equalizer, to a nineteenth-century opportunity to display one’s individual or familial material success, to a twentieth-century distance from death’s increasingly abstract bite. But The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers is also an eminently useful resource for historians interested in lesser-known research on questions of acculturation of non-European ethnic groups to European practices, and, still more tantalizingly, the reverse, such as archaeologist Ian Brown’s observation that “a significant number of pioneer cemeteries” were started atop “prehistoric American Indian burial grounds” (p. 11).

One of the book’s chief contributions, then, is its collation of research that warns against generalization. The authors show—per the scholarship of Ian Hodder, in particular—how seemingly identical memorial practices can mask or naturalize massive cultural and economic differences, whose alternate patterns emerge via attention to differing groups’ experiences of assimilating pressures, before and after death. Historians keen to interpret cemeteries, gravemarkers, and mortuary monuments in terms of their material and culture will therefore find much in its pages. In the case of abandoned graveyards—particularly those containing the dead of American military encounters—this book could also be used by public historians as a primer for recognition, interpretation, and ongoing care.

Between an introduction and conclusion, Baugher and Veit offer five chapters that suggest that there is “such a thing as an American cemetery, burial, or grave-marking tradition” (p. 205)—an argument perhaps most successful in the observation that while Europeans bought burial plots for a specific period of time, European Americans regarded burial plots “like any other type of American individually owned land—it had no time restriction” (p. 12). Non-European afterlives radically diverged, however, and chapter 2 explores how historical inequalities of race and class shaped past belowground mortuary archaeology, prompting calls for its ethical renovation. Put simply, the cemeteries best remembered but also least studied are those of Europeans wealthy enough to afford stone markers, and, until the 1990 passage of the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), state laws protected European American burial grounds in ways that Native American burial grounds were not. The latter had been subject to looting from the Puritan excavation of indigenous New England graves in the seventeenth century through the racialized skull hunting of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and this chapter surveys the history of American mortuary excavation that dug “without the permission of or input from the descendant community” (p. 18). It then traces the more respectful anthropological interactions that undergirded NAGPRA, the dedication of the African Burial Ground, and current collaborative best practices.[1]

Chapter 3 discusses the religious, cultural, socioeconomic, and gender-linked insights yielded by the belowground archaeology of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century American interments. Examination of bodies, coffin hardware, and grave goods can reveal significant divergences between gravemarkers—located in the public sphere—and the private, material culture of interment, where bones can reveal the pains of economic and racial exploitation, and seemingly similar materials might embody multiple meanings. Much has been made of a coffin in the African Burial Ground, for example, whose heart design with interior scrolls has been interpreted as the Akan people’s Sankofa, a symbol for remembering ancestors, but, as Erik Seeman has observed, was also not uncommon on Anglo-American coffin lids.[2] Similarly, the work of Edward Bell at the Uxbridge Almshouse in Massachusetts suggests that attributions of socioeconomic rank based on coffin hardware should be questioned, given that nineteenth-century mass production and a cross-class beautification of death meant that the poor could “buy up” for the dead, imparting them with “a sense of socioeconomic stature otherwise not attainable” aboveground (p. 38). Most interestingly, the authors summarize recent archaeology of non-European ethnic groups in the colonial and early Republican eras: the burials of Catholic Indians who retained grave goods, and the Protestant Indians who did not; of enslaved Africans in rural Texas; and of mid-to-late nineteenth-century Chinese laborers in California, who, when they could afford it, exhumed their dead to ship their bones back to China, leaving partially backfilled graves containing offerings for the afterlife.

The following three chapters on aboveground archaeology cycle back through that terrain, extending it to the twentieth century. Chapter 4 surveys the literature of early European American gravestones and cemeteries, a field that largely began with James Deetz and Edwin Dethlefsen’s application of seriation studies to colonial gravestone carvings in Massachusetts. Their classic argument—that an apparent shift from Death’s Heads, to cherubs, to urns and willows as the most common images on eighteenth-century New England tombstones reflected changes from “harsh” Puritanism, to the supposed liberalization of the Great Awakening, to greater secularism—has been complicated by subsequent archaeologists and art historians. Continuities in Death’s Heads, a wider repertoire of symbols, regional variation beyond the Northeast, and the reproduction of cherub imagery on the gravestones of Jews, Catholics, and Quakers suggest that variations were also a function of carvers’ material networks and competitive styles and extra-religious culture. Tellingly, the interpretation of aboveground colonial markers has highly class-based limitations, given that gravestones, rather than less lasting wooden markers, were only within reach of people with means.

Chapter 5 explores the shift from more simple but congregationally organized colonial burial grounds of eighteenth-century agricultural America to the sprawling, highly planned, family-oriented cemeteries of the industrializing, consuming, upwardly mobile nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Here, Baugher and Veit look less to archaeologists than to historians, art historians, geographers, and other scholars who have chronicled how concerns over cemetery overcrowding and sanitation in North Atlantic cities contributed to the development of carefully landscaped—if not yet manicured—“rural” cemeteries just outside or within the bounds of cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn. These cemeteries became a place to display new wealth by commissioning outdoor sculpture and elaborate, highly symbolic mausoleums. In their use of green space, they anticipated public parks—“burial places for the dead and gathering places for the living” (p. 134)—but, through the twentieth century, remained highly segregated by race and class.

Of particular interest in this chapter and the next is how the Civil War changed the material culture of death. The war was the occasion of the federal government’s first foray into purchasing cemetery grounds for fallen soldiers, who each received government-issued stone markers. These markers redrew national belonging. In “many instances ... the first formal markers one finds in Northern African American burial grounds” date to the Civil War, when the government issued gravestones for the “United States Colored Troops” who bled along with white compatriots for the cause of Union and the abolition of slavery (p. 176). Confederate soldiers who died in Northern prisons also received funds for headstones, but only in 1906, and with different designs. The US government has continued to pay for gravestones for all veterans since 1879.

Chapter 6 is the book’s most interesting. It examines how differences of ethnicity, race, and class found varieties of new expression in nineteenth- and twentieth-century cemeteries, just as Anglo-American cemeteries became increasingly uniform. Given how past belowground archaeology has disproportionately focused on the structurally disenfranchised, such as Native Americans and the poor, this is where the field’s new approaches are most necessary—including the choice not to investigate—and its insights most exciting. Craig Cipolla’s historical archaeology in collaboration with the Brothertown Indian communities of upstate New York and Wisconsin, for example, interprets the shift from anonymous to increasingly individualized headstones, from communal histories to family monuments, as a reflection of a conversion to Christianity and as ethnogenesis in the face of extraordinary settler colonialism. Surviving nineteenth-century gravemarkers of African Americans suggest the possibilities of resistance against racialization by whites: tombstones erected by masters emphasized blacks’ status as “faithful” servants or chattel, while those erected by free individuals for their family members rarely mention race. The layout of the aforementioned Chinese American cemeteries demonstrate principles of feng shui, and Jewish gravemarkers suggest both assimilation and internal, class-based differentiation between earlier German and Spanish immigrants and later, more orthodox eastern Europeans. Summaries of other groups—Spanish Catholics, Mexican Americans, Romany, and Italian Americans—are included, though in far less detail, to suggest where more work could be done.

Whether and how it should be done is a question that the authors entertain as well. This, in a nutshell, is the promise and challenge of such a volume, that theoretically could include the afterlives of anyone who lived and died within the bounds of what is today America. Burial is, by its nature, the ultimate drawing of privacy’s veil, even if gravemarkers maintain a social identity aboveground. To focus on the gravemarkers of advantaged northern Europeans reproduces old tendencies in American history, but to extend that attention beyond those groups in an ethical manner asks for complementary meditations on consent from the less advantaged. As Baugher and Veit extend into the twentieth century, discussing the interments of groups and individuals whose descendants are manifestly findable, they ask whether “we [should] use oral histories?” (p. 205). It is a rhetorical question, I presume, whose answer for the authors, given their prior meditations, is clearly “yes.” Yet the scope of such an undertaking suggests a paradigm that has far more in common with history or ethnography than of archaeology—an observation that opens the volume, and the field, to the critique of not having cited a particular work from the rapidly growing field on American deathways, consideration of the rich theoretical literature on non-European groups’ mortuary practices, or a still more urgent call to engage with modern mourning.[3]

This is less a mark against the work, which has one or two more apparent issues—its recursive nature means that certain scholars are introduced and reintroduced several times over; a tighter editorial hand would have been appreciated—than an example of an opportunity for collaboration of a less fraught sort: with historians, whose work has transformed and has the potential to be transformed by the labor of archaeologists. As Baugher and Veit sagely note, if a gravestone makes no note of a free person of color’s race or former enslaved status, that stone’s interpretation solely on its own material culture is woefully limited. By the same token, a historian’s meditation on how someone lived but not how they died and were then buried—as a name, an individual, no longer recognized by the color of their skin—is its own missed opportunity to observe one final last act of resistance or, perhaps, resignation. The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers is a fascinating and welcome invitation to that sort of collaboration. At the very least, it should make not a few historians consider leaving their offices to commune with the dead down the street.


[1]. See Christopher Heaney, “A Peru of Their Own: English Grave-Opening and Indian Sovereignty in Early America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 73, no. 4 (October 2016): 609-646 for the argument that the English excavation of indigenous graves was a key heuristic and militant tool of the colonizing project, reflecting both Protestants’ “reformed” relationship to mortuary idolatry and desires to reproduce Spanish success at grave-opening in colonial Latin America, Peru most particularly.

[2]. Erik Seeman, “Reassessing the ‘Sankofa Symbol’ in New York’s African Burial Ground,” William and Mary Quarterly 67, no. 1 (January 2010): 101-122, esp. 118.

[3]. For example, Ann Fabian’s excellent The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead (Chicago: University Press of Chicago, 2010) would have been a useful reference not only for the ethics of Euro-American interventions in indigenous and African American graves but also as a way to mark how the Civil War transformed Euro-American expectations of burial and intimacy with the dead.

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Citation: Christopher Heaney. Review of Baugher, Sherene; Veit, Richard F., The Archaeology of Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=44320

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