Colonial Experiences of Death and Burial: The Landscape Archaeology of West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide

01st December 2007

Stephen Muller

BArch(Hons), Department of Archaeology, Flinders University, October 2006

This thesis considers how nineteenth century attitudes to death and burial were articulated and experienced through the cultural landscape of the colonial sections (1837 to 1900) of South Australia’s first cemetery situated on West Terrace in Adelaide. To achieve this goal the phenomenological perspective used in postprocessual landscape archaeology has been employed. This involves a holistic approach to site analysis, with an emphasis on understanding how all elements of the cemetery landscape were constructed over time and how these choices were intended to communicate social attitudes and their underlying ideologies at both a private and public level. Through the process of visitation, of being in the landscape, the visitor is engaged in a reflexive perception of these attitudes, as communicated through the medium of material culture, in a dialogue intended to perpetuate social and religious belief and to reaffirm class-based worldviews.

The study focuses on four targeted samples within its colonial boundaries to test this approach. The plan and layout of the colonial cemetery is also analysed followed by a consideration of how the selection, placement, accumulation and display of material culture occurred within the site over the course of the nineteenth century. The archaeology is further contextualised by considering the historical backdrop of Victorian attitudes to death and burial in Britain and how these views were transferred to and expressed in the colonial landscape. These elements are then linked to the distinct cemetery visitation patterns that developed during this period to reveal a dynamic landscape, a place of movement and experience. Historical documentation is also utilised to cross-check the archaeological results.

The study uncovers a complex series of factors at work in the selection of gravesite, monument, and inscription influenced by both private family concerns and the potential for public expression that the high public visitation patterns at the site provided during the nineteenth century. For example, anomalies in tombstone orientation, siting, plot size and monument height found in the samples suggest conscious acts by the family to construct an individualised experience of both socially-accepted ritualised remembrance, as well as a need to immortalise the class status of the deceased and to ideologically reaffirm their social worldview to the onlooker. The choice of monument shape and design also demonstrated both the social and religious conventions of the period, such as the use of particular materials and sizes for monuments, but also displayed through statistical comparison examples of individualised expression in the choices exercised upon the material culture.

This analysis concludes that a deeper understanding of the way attitudes to death and burial were embedded in the nineteenth century cultural landscape of West Terrace cemetery can be obtained through a phenomenological approach. The historical cemetery is demonstrated to be a site of ritual and ideological belief processes, whose messages and meanings are recoverable through the holistic perception of ideological landscape construction and its material culture, and by experiencing its artefacts as dynamic signifiers rather than static objects.

Stephen Muller
Colonial Experiences of Death and Burial: The Landscape Archaeology of West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide
December 2007
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Thesis Abstracts
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