Archaeology: Why Dig at a Cemetery?

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1(3)Every archaeological excavation breaks new ground. Even sites like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England – one of the most extensively studied archaeological sites in the world – continually yield fresh discoveries. The 20th-century excavators of Stonehenge, William Hawley and Richard Atkinson, recognized the value of earth that had not been disturbed by archaeologists. As a result, they purposefully excavated only half of the stone circle and the surrounding earthworks. The other half they left untouched, and it is mostly untouched to this day, for the sake of preserving the privilege of “breaking new ground” for future archaeologists.

It is worth noting that archaeologists do not always break new ground in the literal sense. Even sites that have been completely excavated or destroyed can yield new information through new interpretations or new scientific testing of the evidence. However, as Hawley and Atkinson knew, the experience of excavating untouched ground is incredibly powerful. Even with extensive documentation, it can never be replicated. That is why archaeologists must be careful, focused, and above all, conservative in their approach to a site.

2(3)The archaeological excavation of the St. George’s / St. Mark’s Church Site in Mount Kisco, New York – initiated this fall by the Lower Hudson Chapter New York State Archaeological Association (NYSAA), in partnership with the Mount Kisco Historical Society – breaks new ground on several levels. First of all, it is the first archaeological study of this site, which was home to two successive churches (St. George’s from 1761–1819, and St. Mark’s from 1852–1916) and, during the Revolutionary War, was occupied by three different armies (French, English, and American). Every trowel-full of dirt we displace is being analyzed in a scientific manner for the first time, and the artifacts we discover – including a French gun flint, two Colonial hand pestles, clay pipe stems, a Brown Betty teapot, and a coin of King George II, just to name a few – are most likely being seen for the first time since they were initially discarded.

Our excavation also breaks new ground in the field of historical archaeology. In the United States, historical religious sites and cemeteries have been neglected by archaeologists until relatively recently. In 2009, the Society for Historical Archaeology dedicated one of its quarterly journals (Historical Archaeology, Vol. 43, No. 1) to the study of religious sites and cemeteries in an attempt to address this deficiency. In the introduction, archaeologists Richard Veit, Sherene Baugher, and Gerard Scharfenberger offer some possible explanations for the lack of attention to this subject.

First, they note the common conception of churches and religious organizations as “bastions of literacy, having been the harbingers of education and the written word even during the scholarly decline of the dark ages.” For our site, this is a great irony, as the records of the St. George’s and St. Mark’s Churches are virtually nonexistent. In 1898, most of the records of the church were destroyed when the parsonage was consumed by fire. In 1929, while working to create the memorial tablet that stands at the St. George’s/St. Mark’s Cemetery today, Village Historian Herbert B. Howe found the scarcity of church records incredibly frustrating. “I was afraid the graves stones [sic] were about all that had to remind us of those days long ago,” he wrote to the Rev. H. Adye Prichard, then rector of St. Mark’s Church.

As it turns out, some contemporary documentation of the St. George’s Church does survive, most of it recounted by the Rev. Robert Bolton in his 1855 History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the County of Westchester. None of this material, however, came from the church itself, but rather was part of a collection of documents on the 18th-century Anglican missions in Westchester County, and on the celebrated benefactor and namesake of St. George’s Church, St. George Talbot. Today these collections are held at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.

When in the 1960s St. Mark’s parishioner Helena Rutherfurd Meade set out to write the first history of the church, she encountered the same obstacles that Howe had faced. A parish scrapbook, containing “all sorts of valuable and/or curious papers that actually go back to the Articles of Incorporation [of St. Mark’s Church] of 1850,” along with the research done by Howe in 1928–1929, was her main source of information. She found the St. Mark’s vestry minutes, which had been preserved in the scrapbook, to be “very scarce and very sketchy documents.” Yet she noted, “it is fortunate there is even the little that there is.”

3(3)Clearly, when it comes to the St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church site, church records cannot be relied upon to tell the whole story. Yet even if all of the records of the churches had survived, and even if they were exceptionally rich documents, they would be unlikely to contain the kinds of details that we, as archaeologists, want to know about the site. Details such as the color of the inside of the church, what kinds of domestic objects were used in its social functions, what items were thrown away and where, and what kinds of personal items the parishioners brought with them to church are unlikely to have made it into any sort of parish record. Yet all of these details and more are preserved in the form of archaeological evidence that we uncovered this fall.

One of the subjects that the parishioners of the church might have considered least important – their trash – is one of the most important and interesting from our perspective. Through discovering what its members threw away, we gain insight into the church community: its values, beliefs, and desires; its economic and social dimensions; and its place in the world it inhabited. Through trash we can paint a portrait of a community almost in reverse. By seeing what they considered trash, we can learn what they considered valuable. By seeing how they disposed of unwanted objects, we can learn how they ordered the spaces they inhabited.

This brings me to a second reason for the lack of interest in religious sites and cemeteries identified by Veit, Baugher, and Scharfenberger: “[S]ome archaeologists simply believe churches are unproductive archaeological sites and contribute little to understanding the past.” Later, they write, “As numerous studies, including the ones in this volume, have and are demonstrating, this viewpoint is categorically false.”

The St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church site may be added to the number of studies that prove the productivity and value of religious sites and cemeteries. Our site has yielded many finds similar to those featured in this volume of Historical Archaeology, including many artifacts of a social function. Perhaps the most illustrative of these artifacts is a Rockingham yellow ware teapot with a manganese brown glaze – a typical “Brown Betty” of the 19th century. Though in pieces, the dimensions of the teapot can be reconstructed, and indicate that it was quite large, holding about eight cups. The size of the teapot, along with its overall utilitarian but handsome design, suggests that it was used at social gatherings – such as the various women’s clubs we know met at the church during the 19th century.

4(1)Other domestic items found in the excavation were probably not used in the church. A bottle of flavored liquor – a brand called the Great Universal Compound Stomach Bitters, manufactured in the 1870s – may have been used medicinally or recreationally (or both). Another bottle, produced in Mount Kisco by local business owner Rudolph Boehmer (1832–1897), may have contained beer or soda, but in either case it is unlikely to have been directly related to the social and religious activities of the church. The same is true for the two fragments of clay smoking pipes we found.

Interestingly, smoking pipes and bottles of alcohol are not uncommon finds at historical religious sites. In her article in Historical Archaeology Vol. 43, No. 1, Sherene Baugher recounts the discovery of a 19th-century beer bottle and an abundance of clay pipes at the John Street Methodist Church in New York City, and lists a number of other instances where evidence of “prohibited activities” has been found on the sites of the very institutions that made the prohibitions.

In archaeology, context can make all the difference; as important as what we found is where we found it. The bottles and clay pipes were located in an area behind the St. George’s and St. Mark’s Churches, in a part of the property that was established as a cemetery for the neighboring Methodist Church in 1854 (but was relinquished, like the Episcopal cemetery, to the town in the 1970s). This particular spot seems to have been used as a trash heap by both congregations throughout the 19th century, and perhaps even earlier. This activity not only filled this area with hundreds of densely packed artifacts, but seems to have noticeably increased the slope of the ground.

Other objects uncovered in the trash heap include eyeglass lenses, plain and decorated pottery, pieces of glass and metal, leather shoes, a button from a navy uniform, and cattle bones, most dating to the 19th century. Overall, these objects evoke a kind of middle class domesticity, furnished with both locally made and imported items, that is utterly lacking in the early accounts of the church. In the mid- to late 18th century, the people of northern Westchester County were isolated, poor, and, in the opinion of the founders of the church, uncivilized. The Rev. James Wetmore of Trinity Church in New York City wrote of North Castle in 1728, “This place was chiefly settled by people of no religion at all, very ignorant and barbarous, being descendants of the Long Island Quakers … bringing a scandal upon religion, by their loose and irregular living.” Through the efforts of Wetmore and other Anglican clergymen, St. George’s Church was built in 1761.

5Two decades later, while encamped at St. George’s Church, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, a cartographer and quartermaster-general in Rochambeau’s army, wrote that “North Castle has few houses, and they are widely separated.” The war had decimated the already sparse population, leading to the abandonment of St. George’s Church. Neglected and battered by a series of military occupations, the old church building was finally disassembled in 1819.

The construction of St. Mark’s Church on the same property as St. George’s in 1852 was part of a wave of development that overtook Mount Kisco (which had since split from North Castle and its daughter town, New Castle) following the extension of the Harlem Railroad Line to the village in 1847. The railroad acted like a blood vessel, bringing life and growth to some areas while choking off others. Within a few decades, it had irreversibly changed the landscape of Mount Kisco. By 1874, the village’s new identity as a thriving manufacturing center was sealed by the construction of the Spencer Optical Manufacturing Company, then the largest optical factory in the world, less than a mile from St. Mark’s Church. Though we can’t say for sure, we like to imagine that the two eyeglass lenses found at the site were manufactured at the Spencer Optical Works.

The domestic and personal items uncovered in the fall 2013 excavation are illustrative of the transformation that overtook the village in the course of the Industrial Revolution. No longer isolated or “barbarous,” Mount Kisco had a direct line into the heart of 19th-century economic and social progress that even Bedford – which had been the county seat of Westchester County at the time when North Castle was only a “settlement in the woods” – did not, as it was not on the railroad line. The same forces that brought imported china and local factories to Mount Kisco are still in effect today. If it were not for the presence of graves, the St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church site would have certainly been developed into a building or parking lot.

The fact that religious sites and cemeteries “are rarely in danger of impact from modern development” is another factor that Veit, Baugher, and Scharfenberger use to explain the lack of archaeological interest in such sites. Additionally, they write, “religious structures are cemeteries are generally not considered eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, except under special circumstances.” The St. George’s/St. Mark’s Church site is one of the exceptions; it was listed on the National Register in 1989. Despite that recognition, it has not received the attention it deserves, having cycled through alternating periods of neglect and restoration before our project began in 2013. Now, it has demonstrated some of the extraordinary potential that religious sites and cemeteries hold, not only for the understanding of the religious and mortuary practices of the past, but of the social and economic spheres with which they intersected, and how all of these dimensions came together to form the modern world.

Photos, from above: The St. George’s/St. Mark’s Cemetery in Fall 2013; Pieces of a 19th-century Brown Betty teapot unearthed in the excavation; Soda or beer bottle manufactured by Rudolph Boehmer in Mount Kisco in the 1870s or 1880s; One of two eyeglass lenses found in the excavation; The Spencer Optical Manufacturing Company Band in front of the Spencer Optical Works in the 1870s or 1880s.

One thought on “Archaeology: Why Dig at a Cemetery?

  1. Peter FeinmanPeter Feinman

    As president of the Westchester AIA, I would like to arrange for a talk and visit to your archaeological site as the opening event in September for our 2014-2015 season. Please contact me at

    Thank you,



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