A Reflection on the NCPTT Workshop Care for Historic Cemeteries Workshop in Janesville, WI, on September 23rd, 2017 by Sammy Kailas
On an unusually hot September Saturday, I joined the Oak Hill Cemetery Preservation Society in Janesville, Wisconsin for a hands-on workshop on the Care of Historic Cemeteries offered by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training of the National Park Service. We started the morning with a lecture in the under-construction cemetery chapel complemented by a spread of coffee, muffins, fruit, and donuts. Jason Church, Materials Conservator for the NCPTT, presented on basic documentation standards for historic cemeteries. This included how to establish and maintain documentation and ethics and utilize different resources. The second part of the lecture highlighted preservation methods for cleaning stone monuments, resetting and mending gravestones, and general cemetery care.
After lunch, our group of enthusiasts, historians, and concerned citizens practiced these preservation techniques on Oak Hill’s gravestones. First, we cleaned a few gravestones by soaking the stone with water. This can be difficult when water is not readily accessible (and on a sweltering 90-degree day, rain did not seem likely that day in Janesville), but with proper planning, innovative methods can be used. We used an extended water hose hooked up to a water trailer on the back of a truck. Then, we sprayed D2 biological solution all over the stone to soak. D2 is a biocide and kills off biological materials like lichen, moss, and mold. After waiting ten minutes or so, depending on the amount and severity of the grime, we scrubbed the stone with soft bristle brushes. We used toothbrushes to clean the inscriptions and detail. Jason also demonstrated ways to reset and mend gravestones, which is probably worthy of a whole other workshop in its own right that I am sure would be met with equal enthusiastic participation from those present. Overall, the workshop was clear in establishing and demonstrating proper methods for cemetery care at a level the community can actively engage in.
I have an appreciation and an understanding of the importance of historic places and memorialization to a sense of community. I received my BA in Anthropology and Classical Languages from Marquette University in Milwaukee, and am currently an MA graduate student in History with a certificate in Museum Studies from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. I specialize in public history—the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and active approach to history. It is because of this background that my colleague and good friend Erin Hastings roped me in into driving the hour and a half to Janesville early on a Saturday morning. Cemetery preservation is not part of my normal weekend routine. In fact, up until this year, I would never have considered care of historic cemeteries to be one of my top interests. I have worked on archaeological excavations in Greece and Italy and am no stranger to getting my hands dirty, but not until my recent experiences with AGS-WI have I begun to appreciate the intricacies and significance of cemeteries as historic places of archaeological interest. Learning new things is exciting, and I relished the opportunity to diverge from my comfort zone for this workshop. And the unexpected assortment of donuts and fresh fruit certainly fueled my desire for learning.
This workshop was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had doing fieldwork. To be sure, the content was fascinating, but even more mesmerizing was the observable compassion and dedication of the attendees. It is because of them that we can preserve these historic spaces for future generations. NB: D2 will kill spiders or at least make them flea from their homes and crawl up your legs. So if you’re squeamish of spiders in your hair, be vigilant of stray arthropods.
For more information on preservation techniques, please visit https://www.ncptt.nps.gov/ and the Wisconsin Chapter’s Facebook page for recent news and upcoming events https://www.facebook.com/AGSwisconsin/.