Preserving Sacred Spaces: Community Clean-Up at Oaklynn Cemetery

Day of Archaeology 2013 fell on a special day for me. As an Outreach Assistant for the Florida Public Archaeology Network Northeast Regional Center (FPAN-NERC), I’ve worked with a volunteer cemetery group throughout the summer and today served as another organized cemetery clean-up. Oaklynn, an African American cemetery, rests in Edgewater, Florida. Like many cemeteries throughout the nation, Oaklynn (and those who have dedicated themselves to this project) face significant obstacles resulting from disuse as well as the neglect that often follows. Documents show that the cemetery was in use between the 1920s through the 1970s as an African American site.

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Evidence of vast andalism is pervasive at Oaklynn Cemetery

Unfortunately, the story of the cemetery and those resting within its boundaries is largely incomplete. Fortunately, the cemetery group dedicates much of their time to research which continually renews their passion and interest in this project. Could there be something to make this project better? YES! Descendants of those buried in Oaklynn work with people not associated with the cemetery in any manner. The volunteer cadre spans across generations, races, affiliations to the cemetery, sexes, et cetera; it represents a true community project and a moving shared experience. (Hence the reason I’m delighted and honored to share a bit of our day with you).

Other than clearing debris, what can an archaeologist do in a cemetery? I’m not a bioarchaeologist, so I’m definitely not excavating burials! My role on site is to help guide the volunteers as they clear the site. I recommend where they work, ways to interact with the site (I think of it as cemetery etiquette), answer questions about removing debris (whether natural or man-made), take notes about our activities and new features discovered in the cemetery, and assist in any manner the group might need me. Similar to other archaeological sites, cemeteries demand meticulous care and thoughtful consideration.

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Trudi and Linda diligently clearing a small part of the 6 acre cemetery

Cemeteries serve as outdoor museums, monuments to the past. Although we can enjoy them in the present, its good to remember that such places represent sacred spaces in which real people of the past rest. Embracing these ideas helps to shape how archaeologists interact with a site. At Oaklynn, I carefully consider the impact an action might have on the cemetery (e.g. What might happen if we cut this tree down? What might happen if we remove this large root from the ground?) and continuously evaluate the context of objects and materials found during the cleaning (e.g. Should we dispose of these bricks or are they related to a surrounding burial? Is this spittoon related to a burial?).

Today I was an archaeologist. Today I was a community project participant. Today I was a proud observer of the past and present blending. Today I had appreciated hard work, camaraderie, and a bit of fun!

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Formula for a good start to cemetery clean-ups: ice cold water and a smooth wheelbarrow ride

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A wonderful group of volunteers, including descendants, community members, and FPANners