Some folks who follow my Flickr stream have commented on the fact that I seem to have become obsessed with cemeteries in southwestern Arkansas…”Why so many cemetery visits?” someone asked (I think my Station Assistant shares this confusion, but he has not directly asked me yet).
There are several reasons for my newly acquired cemetery preoccupation. First, historic cemeteries are a great way to learn the cultural and historical landscape of an area. I learned from my colleague James Davidson that the history of a place can often be told by looking at the geography and chronology of it’s cemeteries. For southwestern Arkansas, I can pick up a USGS quadrangle map, or a county road map and I can drive to every marked cemetery–especially the ones at the end of dead end gravel or dirt roads. When I do this I 1) begin to understand the general geography of the area because I am driving around with my maps and 2) begin to understand the historic landscape because these older cemeteries tell me where communities where in the 1800s and 1900s. They tell me where communities have died and where they have survived.
Another aspect of local cemetery studies is that I begin to recognize family names and connections–many of which will probably play some role in my future archeological research. And, finally, these cemeteries can be a conduit to getting to know current local communities.
I serve as the humanities scholar for several folks who have received grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council to help preserve rural African-American cemeteries. My role in these grants are to map and photograph the cemetery as a part of its larger documentation and repair (most grants provide for filling in collapsed graves, erecting or repairing fences, resetting stones, etc.). Although my colleagues may not understand why I’m so gung-ho to map these cemeteries, I maintain that this kind of service is a great way to meet and get to know communities that are interested in their history….Communities that I might partner with in the near future when I excavate local sites…
Besides…It’s a good thing to give a little to the communities that we at the AAS are here to serve….even if it doesn’t result in a peer-review research article.