Headstones as Postcards from the Past

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Notes below

These are the prompts used during the talk and not an exact script.

Nick Maxwell (www.wordwell.com) recommended that we focus on 'harder' topics in local history and archaeology, citing Tom Dunne's book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rebellions-Memoir-Memory-1798-ebook/dp/B006ZOYNL...) as an example of high quality history writing. Keep this in mind when telling stories of the past.

The project is funded by SECAD and in collaboration with Cork County Council. It is happening in association with a SECAD Ireland XO initiative.





My name is John Tierney and I am a field archaeologist with Eachtra Archaeological Projects. We are a high-tech archaeology partnership dealing with Geographical Information Systems and digital archaeology. We have been involved in conventional historic graveyard surveys for the last 14 years but three years ago we changed our approach to graveyard survey by developing an online publication system which has grown since then into a digital toolset for community engagement and diaspora connections.


Currently we are working with SECAD to train community groups in historic graveyard survey and publication. Aiming to develop a heritage resource for locals and visitors. As every parish in Ireland has an historic graveyard we aspire to developing an extensive network.


Simply out, we number each grave memorial with masking tape and a marker.

We then take one geotagged photo of each memorial in numbered sequence and upload this to the website.

Instant publication is highly engaging for our volunteer groups – theys ee immediate results for their work.

The geotagged grave memorial photo is then a hook that we can hang other media (audio and video stories) onto. We have become geolocated heritage media content publishers. Local people do the surveys, tell their stories and publish them to the web.

As well as hi-tech tools like GPS cameras and audio recorders we depend on simple rolls of masking tape and markers. The tape is used to put a number on the back of each grave memorial. This usually stays on for a week or two and is removed by the community when they are done. If the labels are washed off they are simple to replace. An average graveyard of 150 headstones can be renumbered in less than an hour.


You develop a philosophical bent when you spend a day in a graveyard. We begin as scientists, becoming more philosophical as the days go by. For many people the graveyards are sacred space.

We view this current project as a chance to capture stories of the different generations - leveraging digital technology to capture our stories and experiences and layering them with those who have gone before and for those yet to follow.


While we have started with Irish graveyards we see the whole approach being relevant to any community - this photo was taken of a plaque in front of a small tree in a graveyard in Manchester. The sentiment of a family flourishing where they set down roots is relevant for so many families as it was for this Ukrainian family.


The communities we work with have been engaged with caring for and recording their own graveyards for many years. Every chance we get we collect the books published by individuals and groups. Local histories of people and place which invariably sell out.


We publish our data and stories to the historicgraves.com website which is based on the Drupal content management system.


It works globally. Stuart Elder went to Australia and tested the geotagging over there while Ewaline Chrobak recorded some Polish grave memorials and Paul Rondelez tested for us in Belgium.


The distribution map of the graveyards surveyed in association with community groups, Leader organisations and Local authorities.


This was the distribution of sites before hte current SECAD training project.


These are the current SECAD sites - currently at 30.  


We have written an android app which queries the Online dataset http://goo.gl/K03RR


You can search by location or do keyword or name searches. The Grave finder will find grave memorial records but also the multimedia content attached to graveyards and grave memorials...


The data typed into the website can also be repurposed as epubs -here we see a screen capture of an epub of a survey in Kilkenny which can be viewed on Kindle devices.


Stories are geotagged by being linked to graveyards or individual grave memorials.

Every picture tells as a story and we have come to learn that in digital publishing every story should have a picture.


A sense of discovery is a key part of our engagement with Historic Graveyards – this sign on a side road in Co. Kilkenny, near Thomastown, is the first hint of the presence of an historic graveyard.

We are trying to develop a system where the discovery can happen in the field or digitally. Bt geotagging stor


Follow the sign, crossing a field and arrive at the head of winding lane. What lies beyond?


Each graveyard has it’s own potential for discovery.








The reverse S on the first line is a clue to us investigating this stonecutter - is it a clue to education and training levels?


Everything we do as within the community - the local authority have stewardship for most of the historic graveyards and we must have their opinion while the local community consists of the families buried within the graveyard. 


Historic Graves are family names pinned in the landscape – representing hundreds of years of continuity and change - we have been delighted to discover that kin groups are identifiable in parishes all over the country - this is a great data source for surname analysis.


This is a small proportion of the names from North Abbey but already the more frequent names are emerging. One lady in the audience today tells us that when she grew up in Youghal there were 4 or 5 separate families of Crowleys who were not actually related in recent memory? How far back would we go to find a link? Another lady says she was the West Cork Crowleys - this got a laugh and the remark ‘all the best things come out of West Cork!’ - representing the competition so evident between communities all over the country.


We build these nameclouds and attach them to place.


Postcard from the Past

We view headstones as postcards from the past -or perhaps we should call them Telegrams in Stone - as people paid by the word they tended to be sparse with detail - this can hide information but also reveal clues.

From this case we have traced the Widow Cullinane to a farm in south Tipperary but we have yet to determine why her sons died so young and what caused their deaths.


Postcard from the Past http://historicgraves.com/newberry-kilshannig/co-ksng-0046/grave

This headstone was historically significant becasue it is the first evidence we found for the stationmaster in Lombardstown train station which opened in 1853 - unfortunately the family suffered significant loss while living in north Cork.








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