Case Study: Buried tombstones

Case Study 35

Buried tombstones

Susan Buckham

The Moray Burial Ground Research Group’s (MBGRG) project to record buried gravestones illustrates how collaboration between amateurs and professionals can find ways to safeguard stones that simultaneously optimise benefits for understanding, accessing and engaging with them.

Between 2002 and 2006, volunteers from the MBGRG worked with the Carved Stones Adviser (see Graveyard recording, Case Study 3) and conservation specialists at HS to create a method to locate and record subsurface gravestones in graveyards in a manner sensitive to conservation and heritage management needs. This included designing and building special equipment to locate stones without causing damage to stonework. MBGRG’s aim was to create the fullest possible record of the genealogical information contained in Morayshire graveyards. Previously the Group had completed buried stone recording at several undesignated burial sites but were initially refused permission by HS to carry out work in a churchyard with scheduled monument status.

The Carved Stones Adviser’s fundamental role was to enable better access to historic graveyards for communities while raising awareness of conservation issues and good practice. The wider work of the Carved Stones Adviser encountered several examples of tensions between the priorities and interests of local groups and national heritage organisations. These included communities’ perception that engagement by heritage professions was tokenistic and did not appropriately recognise the skills and knowledge of amateurs (Buckham and Dakin 2007, 25, 29). There was a sense that little active conservation was taking place yet gravestones were decaying rapidly and the efforts of family history societies and other local groups to preserve information by record were being thwarted by recommended good conservation practice, which for example, advised against cleaning stones.

Several members of staff at HS saw collaboration with MBGRG as a positive opportunity to encourage and approve good practice in the course of legitimate research and to limit the potential risks to historic stonework and archaeology. Equally it was acknowledged that while HS had a locus of authority over amateur work, this was limited to scheduled monuments and the vast majority of graveyards were not scheduled sites. At the same time, however, at an organisational level HS was influenced by the legacy of an institutional culture that hesitated to support non-professionals to undertake work involving ground disturbance, without supervision, at nationally important archaeological sites.

In this instance, collaboration resulted in agreed protocols that allowed volunteers to retrieve information from gravestones buried beneath a shallow layer of turf (approximately 15 cms) in a manner than mitigated against damage to stonework and archaeology. Heritage professionals were additionally reassured by the consensus that a buried tombstone project should be considered as an 'one-off opportunity' at any given site. Once a complete and accurate record was made stones would be re-turfed for their protection. Results would be published and publicly archived to contribute to wider knowledge. This approach established new guidance but also adopted existing good practice, for example for securing appropriate permissions, safe working practices and legal responsibilities. MBGRG shared their expertise with others through a published handbook and peer training. In 2005 the MBGRG were granted permission to carry out buried tombstone research at a scheduled graveyard site (Birnie Churchyard), where they had previously been refused access (Figures 1–4).


Figure 1: Birnie churchyard, General view of buried tombstone work showing probes and plastic tools. Copyright Bruce Bishop


Figure 2: Birnie churchyard, stone dated 1604 after very careful cleaning. Copyright Bruce Bishop


Figure 3: Birnie churchyard, recumbent tombstone commemorating the Russel family (major farmers in the area) dating from 1691, depth 12 cm, required very careful and extensive cleaning. Copyright Bruce Bishop


Figure 4: Birnie churchyard, line of worn 17th-century tombstones near to the foundations of the old church before detailed cleaning. Some partially visible inscriptions. Almost on the limit of permitted excavation depth at 15 cm. Copyright Bruce Bishop