2014 Student Blog Post #5: Daniel Schneider
Finding Meaning in Cemeteries
My name is Daniel Schneider. I am entering my second year of studies in the Industrial Archaeology program here at MTU. My research interests relate to the transformation of nineteenth century artistic skills within the context of industrialization. Blog readers living in the Copper Country may know me from my work as a letterpress printer at the Copper Country Community Arts Center in Hancock. The monuments at the Clifton cemeteries, with their typography and iconography carved into stone (or cast into iron), were a source of fascination for me during this summer’s field work.
Intrinsic to cemeteries, and to the cultural traditions by which they are created and maintained, are a number of characteristics which make them useful for understanding the past. Funerary monuments, in particular, manifest all three of what James Deetz calls the “inherent dimensions” of archaeological data: space, time, and form. Describing the first of these three diminsions – space – was at the core of our work at both the Protestant and Catholic cemeteries at Clifton in late May. Using means described in separate posts by John Arnold and Alex Whydell – optical transit and triangulation using measuring tapes – we plotted and mapped spatial relationships among extant gravestones and those depressions in the ground which we found to be significant (those thought to be locations of disinterred remains). The result was a map of each cemetery, with these features plotted as points. We will post our maps as soon as they are complete, along with all the information we have gathered.
Where gravestones existed and were legible (some degree of information was discernible on nearly all of the headstones), it was possible to add the second dimension, time, to our analysis. At the Catholic cemetery, located between US 41 and the old railroad grade on the south side of Clifton, Anna R. Kremer’s and Joseph Kremer’s gravestones bracket the timespan discernible within the landscape. The former is marked with a date of death of 1863, the latter with death date of 1889. It is possible to trace the development of some cemeteries by looking at their gravestones’ dates in combination with their spatial relationships: a cluster of markers with early dates at the west end of a cemetery, making a progressive transition toward later dates at the eastern side, would indicate interments proceeded from west to east in that cemetery over time. This would be the logical expectation about how the Catholic cemetery developed at Clifton. The foundation of a church building occupies the western end of the site, and it would be expected that the cemetery’s first graves would have been dug in close proximity to the church. The extant grave markers, however, show no clear pattern in this regard, and it might be unreasonable to expect a clear pattern to emerge from so small a sample (the cemetery contained only 18 headstones bearing legible dates).
Even fewer legible headstones were present at the Protestant cemetery, located on the north side of Cllfton at the very foot of the Cliff itself. Here the legible gravestones were six in number, though some displayed information relating to multiple decedents. The dates of death, followed forward in time from the earliest (1852) to the latest (1874), generally traced an arc across the northwestern portion of the cemetery ground. The presence of a large number of unmarked depressions in the cemetery makes it difficult to confidently assert interpretations of the spatial and temporal development of the Protestant cemetery.
In both cemeteries, the headstones provide information beyond dates of death. A rough picture of the ethnic composition of Clifton’s population (and by extension the Cliff Mine’s workforce) can be drawn from the names of the deceased. Names like Kremer and Engels in the Catholic cemetery suggest German descent while the names Hanly and Harrrington suggest Irish origin. Some of the German headstones, with their text in the German language, remove all doubt as to the nationality of the person interred: “Geboren,”or an abbreviation thereof, is carved instead of “Born;” “Gestorbren” indicates the year of death. The tombstones bearing Irish names frequently display the decedent’s place of birth (e.g. “Barehaven, Co. Cork), indicating these people were first generation immigrants and suggesting displaying place of birth was part of Irish Americans’ funerary custom.
In addition to text, funerary monuments often bear imagery, exemplary of the third dimension of archaeological evidence: form. Chapter Four of In Small Things Forgotten, “Remember Me as You Pass By,” deals directly with this subject. In it, Deetz traces the development of gravestone imagery in New England between 1680 and 1820, tying transitions among different types of imagery to changes in Anglo-American religious attitudes during that time period. The popularity of the death’s head on funerary monuments from roughly 1720 to 1770 bespoke of the predominance of the Puritan church during that time. A less harsh symbol, the winged cherub, prevailed from roughly 1770 to 1800, and the transition from cherub to urn and willow which took place by 1810 marked a further departure from the Puritan attitudes of the previous century. Deetz’s analysis was based on a broad timeframe and geographical region, allowing him to mark contrasts between the progression of gravestone imagery in urban versus rural areas: cities, as cultural centers, displayed earlier and more rapid transitions from death’s head to cherub, and from cherub to willow and urn.
Deetz’s work is summarized here as an example of the richness of cultural expression that is physically reflected in gravestones. The number of gravestones in the Clifton cemeteries is tiny by comparison to the number Deetz surveyed for his book, and the monuments are not so old. But their iconography can be connected to broader cultural traditions. Gravestones at both cemeteries displayed widely used symbols. In the Catholic cemetery, ivy and a sheaf of grain adorn Joseph Kremer’s gravestone, symbolizing friendship or immortality and “divine harvest.” The lamb and shaking hands on the Peters family obelisk in the Protestant cemetery symbolize, respectively, the innocence of children and farewell with promise of reunion. Crosses, including several grave markers in the Catholic cemetery which are of cast iron in the shape of a cross, symbolize Christianity.
Through careful observation of the gravestones in Clifton’s cemeteries, information can be found which contributes to a better understanding of the place’s population during the 19th century. By expressing immigration history, and displaying widely recognized symbols, the headstones demonstrate those people’s connection to the wider world.
 Well-written for a general audience, James Deetz’s 1977 book In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life, is an excellent overview of and introduction to Historical Archaeology as a discipline.