Have compass, will travel: A cemetery mapping project


Historic cemeteries are important endangered cultural landscapes. I have always enjoyed walking (or bicycling) through them. The grave markers exhibit local craftsmanship and tell stories about the people who once lived in a place. Yet when I became an archeologist, I never imagined them as part of my job. Over the years cemeteries have become almost as important as my trowel to my work as an archeologist.

As a historical archeologist, I first realized the value of cemeteries when I was conducting research on a former African American community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Archeology provided a certain amount of information about the former enslaved laborers who had owned the rocky land. Historic documents and oral history provided another layer of information. Yet it was not until I located the historic cemetery in which these families were buried that I was able to connect the dots between the documents and material culture and give names to these people without history.

Now I am a Research Station Archeologist for the Arkansas Archeological Survey. I teach and conduct research, but a big part of what I do is public outreach and education. Community members call to ask for help documenting their local, often abandoned, cemeteries. People want to know what they can do and where they should start in order to protect and preserve their cemetery.

Today, I am preparing for a cemetery mapping workshop. The first step for preserving a cemetery is documenting it’s existing condition. This can be done with fancy equipment such as total station mapping or GPR. But this is often costly. We will be teaching people to map a cemetery using compasses and tape measures, to photograph and record inscriptions, and to clean headstones carefully.

Archeology is more than just digging. We often use tools other than our trowels. Mapping with a compass and a tape measure is often one of the first things an archeologist learns and it is an invaluable tool for documenting a cemetery.