by Jennifer E. Mack, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, Bioarchaeology Program
The Original Project
From the 1830s to around 1880, the Catholic community of Dubuque, Iowa, interred their dead in the Third Street Cemetery, which was situated on a high bluff overlooking the town and the Mississippi River to the east. In the twentieth century, the unmarked and forgotten burial ground was inadvertently disturbed by construction several times. After Iowa’s burial protection law was passed in 1976, graves older than 150 years fell under the jurisdiction of the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA), so when the cemetery was once again damaged by construction activity in 2007, the decision was made for the OSA to remove burials from the threatened area. Over 900 graves were excavated by OSA archaeologists between 2007 and 2011. Thorough analyses of the human remains and artifacts from the graveyard were conducted before the materials were reburied in a newer Catholic cemetery in 2013. The details of this research were published in both a technical report and a paperback book available to a wider audience.*
In 2017, I started graduate school and began a new research project using information from the Third Street Cemetery excavation. The purpose of my dissertation project is to examine mortality patterns and mortuary treatment at the Third Street Cemetery and to investigate possible differences between adolescents and other age groups within the burial population. I am using skeletal evidence of disease and trauma, as well as historic death records, to look at the health and mortality of Dubuque’s nineteenth-century residents. To interpret mortuary behavior, I am looking at coffin hardware, remnants of burial clothing, religious objects, and non-religious grave goods. The presence of non-religious grave goods—such as scissors and photographs—is unusual in Catholic burials, and the tendency for these items to be found in the graves of teenagers in Dubuque was the inspiration for this project. The results of the Third Street investigation will later be compared with data from ten additional nineteenth-century American cemeteries to determine if the observed patterns are consistent across the country or if they are specific to the community of the Dubuque.
Figure 2. Religious medal found in the burial of a 14- to-17-year-old.
Figure 3. Scissors found in the burial of a 17- to 19-year-old girl.
To Learn More
Please see Dubuque’s Forgotten Cemetery: Excavating a Nineteenth-century Burial Ground in a Twenty-first-century City, available at your local library or from the University of Iowa Press and other vendors. This book received the prestigious 2017 Deetz Award from the Society for Historical Archaeology!
The technical report from the archaeological excavation can be downloaded for free from Academia.edu.
You can also listen to this Talk of Iowa (Iowa Public Radio) interview on the project from 2015!