Tuesday 20 March 2012

Monumental Roadshow for grass-roots heritage

Workshop participants recording a memorial
Today, the Historic Graves Roadshow arrives at St John's Cemetery in Kilkenny. This is the first of the Roadshow's three educational workshops which guide local communities in the appreciation and digital recording of the heritage that lies in their graveyard.

These Roadshow workshops are similar to the grass-roots heritage projects conducted by Historic Graves all over the country. All pass on techniques that encompass genealogy, archaeology and conservation.

But there's one big difference: the graveyards and cemeteries chosen for the Roadshow are in urban environments, and this factor has opened up a new source of funding to Historic Graves: the Environment Fund (raised by the plastic bag levy).

I spoke to John Tierney, one of the core team behind Historic Graves about how the concept for the workshops originated.

"We're archaeologists," he explained. "We were studying and surveying historic graveyards as service providers and while we were good at recording surnames and other information, we weren't making any connection with the heritage we discovered. It needed the connection of locals.

"Now, with this workshop model, our techniques have evolved and its the local community which is recording their own heritage. We show them how to do it. We are teaching them techniques and leveraging modern technology to allow them to independently gather, record and store their own records."

Workshop participants learn to identify different types of memorials eg to compare the styles typical of 18th-century headstones with those of 19th-century headstones.

"In the process, they begin to appreciate the wealth of heritage that's on their doorstep," says John. "It happens very quickly. Once you show them one detail, they get it."

They are also made aware of the tradition of unmarked headstones ie obvious gravemarkers without any inscription. "We've learned through our archaeology work that these were chosen quite specifically for the individual whose grave they marked. There are round ones, square ones, white ones and so on, deliberately chosen to remember that one person. Unfortunately, these haven't been respected for what they are and many have been pulled up. So there's obviously a bit of education to be done on this issue."

A memorial to twins in St John's, Kilkenny
So how will today's workshop, which involves students on the Rothe House Cultural Heritage course, pan out?

The day will start with a bit of an intro from the Historic Graves team. But it's kept short, John says, because gravestone recording is very much dependent on good light conditions, and it's best just to crack on with the recording process.

One group will be despatched with the digital camera, which has a geo-locator chip installed to capture the location of each grave. Another will be filling in record sheets with the dimensions and other identifiers of grave markers. Another will be doing newspaper rubbings, to capture the iconography and inscriptions.

John describes the programme as 'very hands-on, and very immediate.'

If today's workshop follows the same pattern as last week's training session at St Finian's, in Newcastle, Co Dublin, all photos will have been shot by lunchtime, and they'll all be on the Historic Graves website by mid-afternoon. Inscription details follow, as do audio and video recordings. The Newcastle group, for example, has already uploaded audio recordings of the church bells, the tales of a local family buried in the rural graveyard, and the reminisences of a former gravedigger.

Having given Newcastle locals the techniques to record their heritage, they are now able to upload it directly to the website, where it is freely available for all to enjoy. What a terrific boon for any genealogist whose family hailed from the parish!

Quite apart from the benefit to family historians, the local community also benefits, as it reconnects with its heritage and in turn develops a stronger sense of association with the place.

It is also very rewarding work for the Historic Graves team. "While we could always see the merit of our work as archaeologists, most of the public didn't!" says John. "Now it's different. We started out as archaeologists and moved into genealogy and our work has since evolved into community development. And it's very satisfying."

The Historic Graves Roadshow has two more stops after today's trip to Kilkenny. Later this week it will be at St Canice's in Finglas, and next week at St Anne's graveyard and St Finbarr's Cemetery in Cork City.