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The Burial Space Research Database (Data Paper)

Toby Pillatt, Gareth Beale, Katie Green, Debbie Maxwell, Harold Mytum, Kieron Niven, Julian Richards, and Nicole Smith

Referee statement by Susan Buckham

Cite this as: Pillatt, T. et al. 2020 The Burial Space Research Database (Data Paper), Internet Archaeology 55.

1. Dataset Location

The Burial Spaces Research Database is managed and maintained by the Archaeology Data Service (ADS): The individual sites (and associated DOIs) that are contained in the database are listed at

2. Dataset Content

The Burial Space Research Database is a new repository for data produced from systematic archaeological surveys of burial spaces, undertaken on a per memorial basis. It enables the many local, community groups conducting research in this field to share their findings and publish results. The database currently includes data from sites in England and the Isle of Man, but it is hoped that its geographical range might be increased in the future.

The structure and form of the database requires groups to use a standardised recording methodology and vocabulary, meaning that datasets from different surveys are interoperable, allowing connections and comparisons to be made within and between local research projects. While burial space research is dominated by data on people and inscriptions, the database is also designed to accommodate archaeological approaches to recording that include detailed descriptions of the material form of monuments. A sophisticated search interface allows users to interrogate the archived datasets using a variety of different criteria, potentially revealing previously unrecognised temporal and spatial trends in the post-medieval history of commemoration.

3. Background

Burial spaces are important heritage assets, of interest to a wide variety of stakeholders, but they are often an overlooked aspect of local archaeology. In particular, they are of high symbolic, emotional and cultural value to local communities, as windows on local and family histories. This high level of interest and attachment has been partly facilitated by the increasing use of permanent stone memorials from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries onwards, which led to a breakdown in the cyclical re-use of burial spaces. Meanwhile over the past 150 years or so, the growing popularity of cremations has meant that use of burial space has declined (cf. The Cremation Society of Great Britain 2014; Ministry of Justice 2007), leading to the heritagization of such spaces: burial spaces are interesting because they are old; they shed light on family history, social history, histories of places, changes in religious practice and attitudes towards death (Mytum 2000; Tarlow 1999). However, declining use and increasing age are often accompanied by growing threats to graveside monuments (English Heritage 2013, 20). It is important that we develop records of our burial spaces before memorials become too weathered and eroded to read, and before they get moved or removed as part of efforts to make monuments safe or to re-purpose burial spaces. Fortunately, recording burial spaces is a popular activity for community groups, but Mytum et al.'s English Heritage report (2012), conducted as part of National Heritage Protection Plan, identified a number of challenges. For example:

'The absence of a readily available, easy-to-use standard model for recording items within cemeteries and burial grounds is widely felt among those with a professional and research interest in the subject and volunteers interested in local sites.'

Coupled with this lack of standardisation, a need for a national approach to data sharing was also recognised (Mytum, et al. 2015, 6):

'The results from this survey reveal much lack of confidence, or independent, ad hoc, decision-making often leading to private collections of data not made available to anyone outside the group, and rarely archived.'

The Discovering England's Burial Spaces project (2017-2020), funded by Historic England and supported by the University of York's Digital Creativity Labs (funded by the EPSRC), responded to these challenges by establishing a new national system for recording our burial spaces, including recording and archiving protocols, and creating a training programme (including training materials, skills development through burial space recording, and the redesign of the 2000 CBA Practical Handbook, Recording and Analysing Graveyards (Mytum 2000; Mytum et al. 2015, 20-22). One of the principal outputs from this project is the new Burial Spaces Research Database.

4. Database Structure and Minimum Requirements

The database is structured to mirror new guidance produced by Harold Mytum as part of the DEBS project. This updates and expands upon guidance previously issued in his (2000) CBA handbook Recording and Analysing Graveyards. A central feature of the new methodology is increased emphasis on the material form of monuments. To that end, in addition to a basic set of measurements and an assessment of the year of the memorial's erection, the database has fields that document the materials used to construct memorials, the presence of tooling marks, the shape of the memorial and whether it incorporates external features, such as kerb stones or gravel infill, and the shape of internal features, like text panels. There are also fields for recording symbolism and decoration: decorative motifs and text styles, for example. To support graveyard management, the database can also record a simple assessment of condition, both of the inscription and the memorial as a whole.

While the DEBS project was keen to encourage surveyors to focus more on the material form of monuments, it was recognised that many groups, and many existing datasets, are more orientated towards documenting inscriptions and people interred within burial grounds. The database accommodates this within a series of fields devoted to individuals, including names, ages at death, dates of death, titles and honorifics, associated places, and occupations. The relationships between individuals can also be recorded, either as stated on the memorial, or inferred by the surveyor. If required, the database also has a field for the full text of memorial inscriptions.

As might be expected, the database is designed to store a range of metadata relating to each survey - the individual or group undertaking the survey, site names and locations, the religious denomination of each burial space, OSGB grid references, and project start and end dates. As part of the ongoing upgrade of the OASIS system for reporting investigative work to regional and national heritage bodies, the DEBS project has developed a new burial space module for reporting graveyard surveys. Consequently, there is a matching OASIS ID field within the database, which will also help support cross-platform linkages between, for example, the Church Heritage Record and the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

To ensure the integrity of the database, the ADS has developed the following minimum standards for accession. However, more comprehensive surveys will always be encouraged, addressing as many characteristics of each memorial as possible.

Required Data

Minimum Recommended Data

For surveys focused on the material form of monuments:

For surveys focused on commemorated people:

5. Search Interface

The ADS has produced a bespoke search interface for interrogating the database. Search results comprise a list of individual memorials, which can be expanded to reveal a full record of each memorial, documenting its material characteristics and people commemorated.

With numerous potential variables to search through, a range of possibilities is presented within the interface. There are two pages of text-based searches, one focusing on memorials, the other on individuals. Each page also has options for refining the search according to location, site or survey. Users can search across multiple fields, with each additional field conjoined by the AND operator - so it is possible to search for all memorials erected in 1875 in Sussex, for example, although far more complex queries are possible. Two further search pages act as prototypes of an image-based search system. One of the challenges around developing a standardised methodology for graveyard recording has been to refine a vocabulary for use by people that have no background in archaeology, architecture or masonry. The easiest way to do this is to focus not on the words, but on what memorials and features look like, and the guidance for identifying memorial types includes a significant number of line drawing images. Consequently, a search system has been constructed which walks users through the different possibilities, as presented using those same images. Currently, the image-based system allows users to search according to the 'broad type' of memorials, or by the type of text panels they incorporate.

Four separate, detailed search pages offer a significant degree of flexibility for users, but it is conceivable that a user might want to combine a person and memorial search, e.g. search for all individuals named Johnson buried in Yorkshire with cross-shaped memorials. This can be achieved using the download text file function on the search results pages, which produces a comma-separated values file (either for all people or memorials referenced within the search result). Once downloaded, several series of results can be combined within a spreadsheet or database application, where individual memorials can be joined, cross-referenced and sorted using unique IDs.

6. Burial Space Research and Potential Use Cases

The study of burial spaces can encompass a broad range of topics and interests, and address different scales of analysis. For example, one might explore the role of churchyards and cemeteries as a whole, questioning the perceived differences between ecclesiastical and municipal management, and the social, political and legal trends that changes in burial space provision represent and reflect (Rugg 2013a, 2013b). Alternatively, focus can be on individual memorials, the development of monumental forms, and how memorialisation and the performative rituals of death configure and reinforce societal power relations; or how choices of decoration can be symbolically related to cultural attitudes towards death and belief, and the highly emotional experience of bereavement itself (Tarlow 1999).

The new database is well positioned to investigate these issues and more. Its strength lies in the ability to search across numerous sites and datasets, enabling the study of commemoration as it has developed and changed over time and space. Consequently, there is the potential for revealing hitherto unrecognised regional and national trends in monumental memorial forms, demographics, and the symbolism of death and bereavement. For example, users might ask when commemoration started, and how its popularity changed over time (cf. Mytum 2002, Tarlow 1998), and consider how changes in the frequency of burials at one site might reflect new sites opening or changes in funerary practice, as indicated by the growing practice of cremation. Alternatively, they might look at regional and temporal trends in symbolism (cf. Dethlefsen and Deetz 1966, Mytum 2002). For example, in some regions the peak in popularity for cherubs is largely or even completely over before stone memorials start being erected; in other regions there are numerous cherub stones.

By acting as a central repository for burial space research, including individual people commemorated, the database also has the potential to become a powerful tool for genealogical and family history studies, drawing together disparate records in one place and making them freely available. By linking named, known individuals with details of their memorialisation, studies can also explore how identities, both familial and individual, have been expressed in different commemorative settings. Of course, particularly exciting for archaeologists and historians alike is the possibility that patterning in attitudes towards death and experiences of bereavement might reflect and reinforce other wider societal trends, as experienced for example in the transition to modernity, or the development of a capitalist market economy, shedding new light on the particularity (or generality) of these phenomena.

In conclusion, although the database currently contains data for just a handful of cemeteries, we anticipate that as it grows in popularity and more groups upload their datasets, it will become an essential open access tool for genealogical and burial monuments research. For those wishing to undertake their own survey, or to find out how to submit an existing dataset to the database, please see the guidance at


This research was funded by Historic England and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (through Digital Creativity Labs). At Historic England, we are grateful to Keith May, Sarah Reilly and Linda Monckton for their advice and support throughout. Thanks too to representatives of our partner organisations Caring for God's Acre, Alliance of Local Government Archaeological Officers, Churchcare and the Churches Conservation Trust: Harriet Carty, Andrea Gilpin, George Sharp, Sue Briggs, Sally Croft, Nick Boldrini, James Miles, Joe Elders and Gill Bull.

Special thanks must go to all the community participants, particularly those that attended our workshops and helped organise events: Andrew Carter, Colin Maplethorpe, Laurie, Rose Ferraby, Stephen Campbell, Ros Batchelor, Kate Giles, Margaret Mackinder, Martin Brooks, Ian Philp, Jean Robinson, Peter Gallagher, Sue Stearn, Tony Stearn, Jennifer Stearn, Jane Lunnon, Alan Williams, and anyone else we might have (inevitably) forgotten!


Referee statement by Susan Buckham

History and Politics, University of Stirling

Cite this as: Buckham, S. 2020 'Referee statement' in Pillatt, T. et al. The Burial Space Research Database (Data Paper), Internet Archaeology 55.

Knowing what we have is the starting point both for heritage management and research (Foster et al. 2016). The sheer number of surviving gravestones, alongside the volume of data recoverable, means that aligning the work of different community groups, individuals and organisations is the most feasible option to document this asset. The Burial Space Research Database provides a sustainable and accessible platform to collate records that may otherwise be held across multiple archives or be inaccessible in the public domain. Most significantly, it uses a comprehensive taxonomy and standard terminology to ensure that data can be cross-referenced. Enabling greater access to information allows for reciprocities of understanding: it affirms that gravestones are a resource for all and broadens the context for engaging with gravestones, particularly from the local to national level (e.g. case studies in Foster et al. 2016).

The database facilitates comparative analysis and enables us to build the basic but comprehensive overviews we currently lack but are necessary to increase our understanding of commemoration (see Historic England 2017 for existing policy guidance). Without access to the bigger picture, it is impossible to identify gaps in current knowledge and begin to address these strategically, or to develop targeted investigations to effectively test new hypotheses. Benefits will be cumulative. As more information is added and more analysis takes place, it will become possible to appreciate more fully the rarity and representativeness of different gravestones as well as how commemoration trends may vary across time, place, between social groups or practices (or combinations thereof). Analysis may tease out which attribute categories produce the most meaningful distinctions or misleading dichotomies (e.g. Rugg 2000; 2013a). This can lead to new understandings of value, unacknowledged recording biases, or previously overlooked significant gravestone categories (Foster et al. 2016, 3.4). The database creators rightly highlight that the link between gravestones' material aspects to people and place affords opportunities for especially rich contextual analysis. The cross-cutting approaches to studying the relationship between people and carved monuments, using the lenses of biography, materiality and landscape, would be well supported using the Burial Space Research Database (e.g. Foster et al. 2016). The flexibility of how data can be interrogated allows the dataset to answer our current questions but also adapt to new perspectives as they emerge. The database includes query fields (e.g. the category 'associated historical events') but the text search options also make it possible to identify other datasets (e.g. people commemorated with links to research areas such as gender studies and the transatlantic slave trade). Information on gravestone condition and previous repairs could also serve as a benchmark to monitor any changes in preservation, and could be used alongside details of materials, form and location to develop strategies to identify significant stones that are under threat before deterioration occurs.

Ultimately, the Burial Space Research Database is an invaluable tool to stimulate new recording and research to inspire fresh insights into a highly familiar yet currently poorly understood asset.

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