The Deterioration of Human Remains and Artefacts in the Cemetery Environment

01st June 2009

Glenys McGowan

PhD, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, December 2007

In 2000–2002, a salvage excavation was conducted on the site of the old North Brisbane Burial Ground, situated 1.6km from the centre of Brisbane. This cemetery operated between 1843 and 1875 and received some 5000 interments. In keeping with Victorian era funerary tradition, the deceased were interred in wooden coffins covered inside and out with fabric, and fitted with cast iron coffin handles and pressed metal decorations. After the closure of the North Brisbane Burial Ground, it remained neglected and overgrown for 30 years, after which it was resumed by the government and incorporated into a larger land package subsequently used for sporting facilities. Part of this area was also used as a municipal landfill and effluent disposal site for over 40 years. The latest redevelopment in 2000–2002 disturbed 397 graves from the original Burial Ground, and a salvage excavation was conducted to remove the exposed burials. Human remains, coffin wood, textiles and metal artefacts were found to be in a surprisingly poor state of preservation after only 160 years of burial. By the time of excavation, 54% of human remains, 6% of coffin wood, 77% of textiles and 22% of metal coffin furniture had completely disappeared from the archaeological record.

This thesis set out to discover why the human remains and artefacts excavated from the North Brisbane Burial Ground were so poorly preserved. A detailed taphonomic study of the North Brisbane Burial Ground was conducted, including a thorough analysis of soil conditions before, during and after the period of the Burial Ground’s operation up until the time of excavation, and an analysis of the types of degradation affecting the human remains and artefacts excavated from the site. Mathematical equations usually employed in the field of engineering were applied to the Burial Ground site to calculate soil temperature for different depths and groundcover situations throughout the 160 year history of the site, and to calculate the force exerted on coffins and human remains by different depths of overburden. It was determined that the factors responsible for the advanced decomposition of the archaeological assemblage at the North Brisbane Burial Ground site were: soil temperature; soil pH; chemical attack; high soil salt content; fluctuations in groundwater level; the continual addition of micro-organisms to the soil profile; continual disturbance of the soil; and the excessive weight of overburden. While some of these factors could be partly related to climate or the natural environment, most were a direct result of human activity and urban development in the period after the Burial Ground was resumed. The identification of the factors responsible for the degradation of archaeological materials at the North Brisbane Burial Ground has shown that changes in soil conditions caused by a range of human activities are the major determinants of whether human remains and artefacts are preserved or destroyed. A greater understanding of these processes allows more informed decisions to be made regarding the management of inhumation cemetery sites influenced by ongoing urban development.

Glenys McGowan
The Deterioration of Human Remains and Artefacts in the Cemetery Environment
June 2009
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Thesis Abstracts
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