Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dubuque's Forgotten Cemetery





Dubuque’s Forgotten Cemetery:
Excavating a Nineteenth-Century Burial Ground in a Twenty-First-Century City
By Robin M. Lillie and Jennifer E. Mack
University of Iowa Press, March 2015


This has been a timely read, considering the re-interment of King Richard III of England at Leicester Cathedral this week. All that pomp, pageantry, splendour, with enormous crowds to witness the re-burial proceedings for a king - but what about the humble, the ordinary, who have been long forgotten until a chance discovery brings their deaths back into public view once more?

People in Dubuque, Iowa, knew there had been a Catholic cemetery long ago, but everyone believed that virtually all the burials had been re-sited in the new graveyard in the late 1800s, and that perhaps only a few might remain  on the original site. The land was about to be developed; a contingency plan had been made to deal appropriately with any bodies that might be found in the course of the development, but what nobody expected - least of all the person who bought the land - was that there would be lots and lots of people still buried there. Iowa has a robust policy for dealing with human remains, both modern and historic, and in this case, the State Archaeology service was heavily involved right from the very beginning - which was just as well.

What was anticipated to take only a month ended up taking years and uncovering almost a thousand graves, as well as opening a complex and costly legal minefield. Despite all the problems, this turned out to be a remarkable opportunity which allowed archaeologists  to use the scientific examination and testing of buried human remains and their grave goods to identify at least some people and to use newspapers and census/religious records to help build up a truly fascinating picture of the health, wealth, life and death of people in multi-cultural Dubuque during the settler period of the 1800s. Many of the deceased had appalling dental problems and must have been in great pain as many of them show signs of having active dental abscesses at the time of their death.

 I found the section dealing with the religious medals - some very unusual indeed - and rosaries buried with the dead particularly fascinating. Several bodies had been buried wearing their rosaries around their necks, which is currently a fashion decried by modern Catholics, but obviously was just as acceptable then as the more mainstream custom of having rosary beads wrapped round the deceased person's hands. The medals depict saints whose specific devotions reveal the geographical origins of some of the settlers as from areas within France, Italy and Germany. It is truly staggering how much information the archaeologists have been able to retrieve from what they unearthed yet there are still many mysteries, such as the purpose and meaning of the silver-plated  dish resembling a paten which was buried with a child, a ten-sided plate buried with a woman and the presence in a grave of a pair of large scissors.

An excellent and highly readable book, detailed yet clearly written, well-illustrated and which shows the puzzles, triumphs and detailed detective work that is involved in archaeology, ending with the respectful re-burial of the dead and a discussion of the function of cemeteries as sacred space and their appropriate management over time.









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