Overleigh Cemetery, viewed soon after its inception.
Cold students survey at Overleigh cemetery
Students getting their eye in, reading memorial texts

This year, as we have done ever since before I arrived at Chester in 2008, we have integrated a specialist kind of archaeological field survey into our third-year module: Death and Burial. Having exploring through class-based sessions the theory, methods and data of mortuary archaeology, students have to acquire, compile, analyse and interpret their own mortuary data for an assessed assignment. Through teamwork surveying 19th- and early 20th-century memorials at Chester’s Overleigh Road Cemetery – a Grade II listed park and garden – the students create a database of 200-300 memorials to explore chronological and spatial, material, decorative and textual variations and themes in the commemoration of the dead.

The students get various skills out of this exercise. Graveyard survey is an important specialist dimension of archaeological survey in itself. It constitutes a valuable part of community fieldwork and pays far greater attention to memorials than those interested in simply finding family graves. As well as the information contained in the text, the arrangement, script, formula for describing the dead as well as ornamentation and material offer a wide variety of fashions to commemorate the dead. Moreover, most memorials are raised or become appended to commemorate many individuals, so these monuments reveal aspects of family commemorative dynamics over decades and sometimes over centuries. In addition to learning about, and how to survey historic memorials, the students also enhance their skills in identifying and accurately recording and measuring the monuments. They also get to check each other’s work for consistency and errors.

Some groups had the good/bad luck of very complex memorials to start with…

A class-based session introduces the students to themes and approaches to the archaeology of the modern cemetery: its rise, development, variation and transformation. We then explore all areas of Overleigh cemetery from its 19th-century core adjacent to the River Dee and the Grosvenor Bridge to its newest graves across Overleigh Road to the south. Then, over three weeks, the students get to survey a range of the memorials in the Anglican section of the old part of Overleigh cemetery.

Students working in the first week in groups of three to get their ‘eye in’ reading and recording memorials

In addition to Historic England’s data on the site, Overleigh cemetery as a wikipedia entry here and there is an online database for Overleigh cemetery here for exploring the names and details of those interred. The Chester Walls website also gives you a tour of some of its notable memorials here.

With regard to individual elements within Overleigh, the gates and gate piers of the old part of the Overleigh cemetery are Grade II listed (and recently restored after damage). There are two internal features listed: the west chapel in the south part of the cemetery, now converted into use as an Orthodox church, and the rustic bridge over the drive in the north part of the cemetery, which once allowed water to flow down to the River Dee from the lake that served as the centrepiece of the old cemetery. The cenotaph in the south part of the cemetery is also listed. These features are all Grade II.

Recording memorials is a team effort, involving observations of worn and faded memorial ornament and text, especially for low monuments like this one.

Among the many hundreds of graves and memorials, only seven monuments are listed individually, all Grade II. I will discuss these in another post. What is important to say here is that every small section of the cemetery contains vast variability in memorial form and detail. While many were interred here without a memorial, those who gained a memorial contributed to a vast and evolving memorial space.

We had a bad first week: I left behind some of the equipment, and the students had to get their eye in and get motivated and inspired to record clearly and accurately. I had a busy time helping them out and guiding them, but they got underway and motivated very well. However, it was very cold and it rained – only a drizzle but enough to make everything damp and destroy morale. I cancelled the survey after 2 hours of the 3 hours allocated and we planned to regroup the following week.

Recording in the cold

Over the following two weeks, we aimed to make up and press on to record as many memorials as possible.