Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Shells of Historic Cemeteries in Florida

In the coming months, I’m beginning a “shell project” at San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine. Back in November, Sarah and I visited the cemetery to evaluate local upkeep and management efforts. The story begins with Sarah pointing out a really large conch shell lain at the base of a headstone near the cemetery entrance. My first reaction was that of surprise; it was a helmet conch (Cassis madagascarensis), which does not typically range north of the Florida Keys because of temperature thresholds. Thus, my first thought was wondering how it found its way to a northeast Florida cemetery.

The Helmet Conch that started it all...

Long story short, we’ve decided to investigate potential shell exchange networks from south Florida and the Caribbean, into the northern reaches of Florida. This topic is researched heavily throughout the prehistory of Florida, as circum-Florida-Gulf/Atlantic shells have ended up in chiefly burial mounds in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Illinois, and more; it’s probably time someone examined how their pathways into historic cemeteries.

Shell "gorget" or pendant found in a prehistoric burial in Oklahoma

When we think of shells at historic cemeteries, we often think of the ethnic groups that may have placed them there. For example, African-Americans, Caribbean, and Hispanic populations probably come to mind, but we know that historic Native American groups (especially in the panhandle), and Euro-American populations have decorated graves with shells.

Queen conch resting on top of a headstone

So, what do shells mean? Like anything else, it’s complicated, and the short answer is that we’re not always sure. Something as personal as a family/friend grave adornment is certainly difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, some overarching explanations have been offered:

-Shells enclose the soul’s immortal presence
-Shells mark a spiritual pilgrimage of some kind
-For African-Americans, they represent the sea—the trip across the Atlantic from Africa
-Sometimes they can be a simple offering or decoration like other grave goods
-Shells can be “killed” or punctated, so they too can be taken into the afterlife with the deceased

Shells in a line on a cemetery ledger in Pensacola

**What will we be asking? 

-What species of shells are common to Florida historic cemeteries?
-Where are the shells coming from- Can they be found locally?
                Florida? Caribbean?
-Are they being purchased? Collected? Traded?

Kevin and EmJ pose in front of a creative and shell-laden headstone

We’ll begin to address these questions at the San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine. Myself, Sarah, and Mark Frank will be conducting gridded, systematic surveys of shell types and densities at the cemetery, with hopes to expand to others throughout the region.

Sarah, Mark Frank and volunteers pose after a  cemetery cleaning day

As with all FPAN endeavors, we plan to involve the public as part of a citizen science initiative.

Finally, what’s learned from this project can be incorporated into our CRPT trainings. 

Text and Images, Ryan Harke, FPAN Staff. Shell gorget used with permission from Nancy White. 

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