University of Kentucky's Program for Archaeological Research

Holmes, Vardeman, Stephenson Cemetery - Crab Orchard, Kentucky 

Exploring a Silent City: Excavation and Analysis of the Holmes-Vardeman-Stephenson Cemetery, Lincoln County, Kentucky
Holmes, Vardeman, Stephenson Cemetery prior to excavation.

Donald W. Linebaugh, Ph.D. and Shawn Phillips, University of Kentucky Program for Archaeological Research

Presented at the Eighteenth Annual Kentucky Heritage Council Archaeological Conference, March 4, 2001

The cemetery, or silent city, is a ubiquitous landscape feature that houses the dead across both time and space. While death has been called the great equalizer of humankind, the rituals associated with death and dying are replete with social, economic, and even political messages and symbols. Views of death have varied greatly across the ages. For example, early Americans held deeply rooted attitudes about death, heaven, and hell that were structured around Christian doctrine and medieval superstition. In the late 18th century, enlightenment ideology and reformation theology brought about a shift in the prevailing view of death. To the enlightened, nature and nature's laws defined man's place in the universe and if the natural order could be understood then man could eventually comprehend and even manipulate death. This emphasis on scientific naturalism is apparent in the rural cemetery movement in the early 19th century and in the design and inscriptions of gravestones and memorials of the period. Although the rural cemetery movement has been studied from many disciplinary perspectives, the thousands of smaller family and community cemeteries scattered across the landscape have received much less attention. Yet, these small rural cemeteries have the potential to speak to a host of important research issues. It is in this context that the Holmes-Vardeman-Stephenson cemetery holds a great deal of promise for understanding rural 19th-century Kentucky.

Archaeological fieldwork at the Holmes-Vardeman-Stephenson Cemetery was completed in July 2000. The project, undertaken to fulfill obligations for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, is sponsored and funded by the Lincoln County Fiscal Court, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, and Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. As originally designed, the project called for the full excavation and documentation of burials that date from the 1830s to 1940s, laboratory research including analysis of the skeletal remains, textiles, and coffin hardware, and genealogical and social historical research. The goal is a biocultural analysis that considers the multiple generations of the cemetery residents and life in rural, 19th-century Kentucky. This paper provides an overview of the project to date and presents some preliminary results of the work.

The cemetery is located northwest of Crab Orchard, Kentucky, on a terrace overlooking Cedar Creek. When first visited, the cemetery was fenced and covered with trees. Soil pH levels recorded during preplanning field visits, along with soil maps and site topography suggested excellent bone and artifact preservation (DiBlasi 2000). Initial reconnaissance by Transportation Cabinet archaeologist Kurt Fiegel indicated at least 54 grave shafts. Twenty graves had inscribed stones documenting adult, subadult, and infant burials; 34 grave shafts were marked only with fieldstones. One significant aspect of this cemetery is the survival of marked and dated gravestones that offer the opportunity to work directly with a population of individuals who can be precisely identified in the historical record. Typically, rural cemeteries excavated for this type of project are unmarked, making specific identification and interpretation difficult, if not impossible.

Crew members map and record grave markers prior to removal.

Fiegel's initial investigations at the cemetery resulted in a consensus determination of National Register eligibility. The cemetery contains the remains of the Vardaman family and their descendants who participated in the initial settling of Kentucky. For example, John Vardeman is listed as a member of the group(s) that blazed the Wilderness Trail. Thus, the family made important contributions to the settlement of Kentucky in the late 18th century. The cemetery's nine large, limestone slab or table markers were thought to be a distinctive grave marker type for the period between 1815 and 1850 in central and south-central Kentucky. In addition, a gravestone with the maker's name and city held promise for studying local stone carving traditions. Finally, the cemetery contained data that could shed light on mortuary practices during the 19th century, demographic information, and forensic pathology.

The general research issues for this site are in the realms of biological anthropology, mortuary practices, and material culture studies. The site was thought to present an unprecedented opportunity to explore a 19th-century Kentucky population through the analysis of human skeletal material. Biological anthropology represents one of the newest and most exciting research frontiers in archaeology, and data derived from a variety of analytical techniques can be used to address research questions concerning health status at both the individual and population level. Another group of research questions are related to deciphering the changing views of death from religious, social, and economic perspectives in terms of the mortuary treatment of the deceased.

The material culture area focuses on artifacts associated with the burials and includes the grave markers, burial containers (coffins), and individual clothing and possessions. The nature of the cemetery, particularly the number of marked and dated graves, allows for precise temporal definition for coffins and coffin hardware. To date, no systematic work has been completed to develop a local or regional typology for these materials. Material culture research also focuses on clothing-related and personal artifacts. These materials will be used to discuss burial practices and also hold the potential to provide dating information for unmarked burials. Finally, studies of grave markers focus on gravestone shape, style and decoration, inscriptions, iconography, and individual makers, to explore temporal stylistic variability as well as their representation of changing views of death.

With these general and specific research questions in mind, we designed a data recovery plan to document the skeletal remains, possessions, and burial containers of all residents of this silent city. The initial work included establishing a site grid and mapping the current site conditions.

View of excavation under way.

Following this, we completed the documentation and removal of all grave markers. The stones were individually recorded photographed, tagged, and then moved by hand or mechanically lifted and placed on wooden pallets for storage until reinterment. The next step was mechanical stripping of the area within the fence and around the cemetery perimeter; areas outside the cemetery fence were stripped to document unmarked graves located outside the cemetery boundary. At this point, the stripped area was cleaned and all grave features were numbered and mapped; sixty-eight possible graveshaft features were identified.

Field technicians excavating a burial.

Each identified burial feature was then hand excavated by teams of three field technicians, one of whom had bioarchaeological training. The human remains were uncovered and recorded in situ using drawings and print and slide photography. Following documentation, the remains were removed and transported to the laboratory at the University of Kentucky.

Cemetery site plan showing burials by gender (pink=female; blue=male).
Project Director Shawn Phillips (second from right) and United States Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Archaeologist Don Ball (second from left) talk with several family members during their visit to the site.

Members of the Vardeman and Holmes families were involved in all aspects of the project including the development of the data recovery plan, visitation to the cemetery during excavation, and meetings at the laboratory facility to view and examine the remains and witness the analysis process first hand. Family cooperation and support was seen as critical for the success of this very sensitive project. Family member Jane Holmes (2000) wrote that "the professionalism that [the staff] displayed was outstanding.... After visiting the site, I am much more comfortable that the removal of the remains is being handled appropriately."

Personal artifacts, buttons, cufflinks, and buckle from various burials.

Analysis included initial processing and cleaning of the remains and artifacts and a host of special studies, as well as historical research using a wide range of documentary materials. Human osteological data collection and analysis was completed using the Standards for Data Collection from Human Skeletal Remains (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). The Standards provide detailed guidelines for a broad range of essential skeletal and dental data collection, including inventory of skeletal elements, observations for the determination of age at death and estimation of biological sex, observations on the primary and secondary dentitions, cranial and postcranial metrical and morphological observations, and observations of a variety of pathological skeletal conditions. Special studies completed or currently underway include stable isotope and trace element analysis of both dental and skeletal remains and x-ray and CT scans for both standard differential diagnosis analysis and biomechanical analysis. We are also currently exploring a full DNA analysis of the population of individuals from the cemetery.

Decorative coffin handle from Burial # 41.

The study of the burial containers and personal effects is also nearing completion. This work includes a full inventory and typology of the coffin hardware with reference to documents such as manufacturer's catalogs, identification of all coffin wood remains, and cleaning, documentation, and interpretation of the surviving textiles. These studies are being combined to create full pictures of the coffins and interments in order to explore burial practices and customs in central Kentucky. For example, ethnographic and documentary research by Stone (1987:216) on burial practices in south central Kentucky during the late 19th and early 20th centuries suggests that the transition to professional funeral services and undertakers was just beginning in the 1880s and 1890s. Stone (1993:53) notes that "although undertakers were burying some townspeople, the majority of rural southeastern [and southcentral] Kentuckians continued to render burial preparations for their fallen loved ones." Although metal coffins were increasingly common across the US during this period, they were still rare in rural areas. More typically, the coffin maker would construct a wooden coffin, and fit it with mass produced hardware including handles, coffin screws, thumbscrews, viewing plates, and hinges. In most cases, the deceased was buried in regular clothing, although specialty burial garments were available from undertakers; likewise, while embalming was fairly typical by the late 19th century, it was still unusual in rural Kentucky.

With this project background in mind, let us turn to several specific examples of burials from the cemetery. Shawn Phillips has provided the osteobiographies of two of the cemetery residents: Lindsey Stephenson (1792 to 1870) and Samuel Holmes (1814 to 1872) (see Table 1). Osteobiographical analysis merges historical and skeletal data in an attempt to better understand the lifeways of the deceased. These men share significant life histories that include being among the first generation of settlers born west of the Appalachians, marrying daughters of pioneers Morgan and Polly Vardeman, and owning and operating successful farms into the industrial era. Lindsey and Samuel also share prominent mortuary characteristics, like burial in metal caskets and distinguished headstones.

In this analysis, we question the factors that resulted in these men's differential mortuary treatment. More specifically, we ask the question - How can osteobiographical data inform the period that spans pioneer life to the incipient industrial era in America's past?

Skeletal preservation for both men was excellent primarily due to interment in metal caskets. Lindsey Stephenson's casket was an interesting blending of a decorative cast iron top attached to a wood framed, lead covered bottom, while Samuel Holmes's casket was a full cast iron model. Textiles were also well preserved due to the metal coffins; most of Lindsey Stephenson's burial suit has been recovered as has portions of Samuel Holmes's clothing.

General observations for both individuals show stature equal to or greater than the modern standard for US males of 69 inches, they exceeded the life expectancy for the late 19th century of 49 years (Leavitt and Numbers 1997), and they experienced modern health problems associated with old age, like advanced alveolar resorption (receding gums) and diffuse osteoarthritis (see table below).

Table 1. Osteobiographies.
  Lindsey Stephenson Samuel Holmes
Observation parents: David and Edith (Logan) Stephenson parents: Samuel and Mary (Faulkner) Holmes
Demography 78 years - 1792 to 1870 58 years - 1814 to 1872
Childhood Health markers 71", no porotic hyperostosis, LEH present 69", no porotic hyperostosis, edentulous
Paleopathology Articular fracture, active mastoid sinus infection, advanced alveolar resorption Healed fractured ribs, early manifestation of spinal TB
Cause of death Pneumonia Apoplexy or murder?
Spouse Ann Vardeman; Ann Logan; Lucinda Stephens Eliza Vardeman
Reproductive Fitness 10 children (4 survived to adulthood), at least 30 grandchildren 6 children (3 survived to adulthood), at least 6 grandchildren
Occupation Farmer, surveyor Farmer, Master Mason
Farm size 328 acres - $10,700 (1860) 580 acres - $12,000 (1860)
Produce Wheat, rye, corn, oats, butter, wool (no tobacco) Same as Lindsey, but also flax and cheese
Livestock 10 horses, 5 mules, 13 milk cows, 2 oxen, 24 "cattle," 28 sheep, 23 swine 11 horses, 45 mules, 12 milk cows, 4 oxen, 60 cattle, 25 sheep, 55 swine
Slaves 25 9
Place in Kentucky 1st generation of Euro-American settlers born west of the Appalachians
Place in US Represent economically successful patriarchs born into a minimalist agrarian society and died at the inception of industrial America and consumer materialism

Lindsey's skeletal remains offer specific details of his childhood health, adulthood, and cause of death. Lindsey's dentition was in a poor state at the time of his death. He had lost nearly 60% of his teeth, and of those that remained 30.8% were diseased. Lindsey's few remaining teeth exhibit Linear Enamel Hypoplasia (LEH) a condition that speaks to his childhood health. LEH represent "lines of growth cessation" during childhood that are caused by an extreme stress like infectious disease (Hillson1996). During such disease episodes the body can be depleted of nutrients and, in children, this often results in the cessation of growth in the struggle to recover from the infection. When a child survives the disease episode, normal growth resumes but LEH leave a permanent lesion on the dentition. Thus, LEH are significant markers of survival that demonstrate successful adaptation to stresses in the environment. Stature is a general measure of adaptation during growth and development (Larsen 1997). The fact that Lindsey grew to nearly six feet tall, greater than the contemporary standard for American men, further demonstrates that he not only successfully adapted to the disease environment but also achieved his full genetic potential. Lindsey's skeletal remains also provide insights to his cause of death. Radiographic analysis demonstrates an active mastoid sinus infection (build up of active sclerotic bone) at the time of death. Cranial sinus infections are indicators of upper respiratory disease, which if not the cause of death, often act as opportunistic infections when the immune system is compromised and contribute to the cause of death (Roberts and Manchester 1995). The sinus lesions concur with Lindsey's cause of death, which was listed as pneumonia in the 1870 Federal Census death schedules.

Samuel Holme's skeletal remains provide equally compelling insights to his life. Samuel was edentulous and buried with gold plated false teeth. Tooth extraction was a popular treatment for tooth decay among late 19th- century dentists once anesthesia became widely available (Magner 1992). From this we can surmise that Samuel had significant tooth decay problems and survived the concomitant high pathogen burden until the diseased teeth were extracted (Hillson 1996). Samuel reached a height of 69 inches, the average for contemporary American men. This indicates, as it did for Lindsey, that Samuel achieved his genetic potential despite the infectious disease environment he experienced as a child. Samuel's skeletal elements also provide a key to his cause of death. Samuel lived to 58, which exceeded the life expectancy at the close of the 19th century. Samuel's vertebrae exhibit lesions that suggest an early tuberculosis infection. Tuberculosis can infect any part of the body, and involves the skeletal system in only 12% of active cases (Auferheide and Rodriguez-Martin 1998). Samuel Holmes' obituary offers two possible explanations for his death (Interior Journal: 8-9-1872). While returning from a trading trip from the west, Samuel was found at a train stop in Rushville, Indiana, in a disoriented state. Although foul play was suspected, it is unlikely since Samuel carried over a thousand dollars in cash on his person. The other suggested possibility was a stroke, which seems a more parsimonious explanation. Tuberculosis is likely to have contributed to his death since the disease commonly affects the brain (Purtillo and Purtillo 1999). Whether Samuel died of a stroke or if his TB infection contributed to that attack is unknown. It is clear, however, that both Samuel and Lindsey suffered mortal conditions, tuberculosis and pneumonia, that counted among the leading causes of death for the time (Leavitt and Numbers 1997).

Lindsey Stephenson and Samuel Holmes' biohistories are remarkable in that they reflect a generation that witnessed the transition from a minimalist pioneer to an industrial economy. Both men, for example, were born into first generation pioneer families, a time when homesteads were firmly established, land was plentiful, and the population explosion had yet to occur (Harrison and Klotter 1997). In this context, they achieved their genetic potential in stature and lived beyond the current life expectancy despite an epidemiological environment of mortal diseases for which there were no curative medicines or preventive measures. The differential mortuary practice evident in their burials is also reflective of a unique moment in American history. Morgan Vardeman received minimalist mortuary treatment that was in line with the rest of his immediate family buried during the 1840s, and his adult grandsons (Lindsey and Samuel's sons) are buried with inexpensive mourning symbols with less prominent headstones or only a fieldstone to mark their grave. From this analysis we suggest that patriarchs of Lindsey and Samuel's generation inherited the prosperity established by their pioneer parents and were buried with adornments fitting of the emergent consumer materialism of the industrial era. This lucky generation is sandwiched between the hardships of pioneering land settlement and the economic strife of mass immigration and the accompanying rise of wage labor experienced by their children and grandchildren. This discussion of two important residents of the cemetery has provided a brief idea of the type of work that is underway for the entire cemetery population.

The final stage of work for the project involves laying out a new cemetery that will be a close reproduction of original. All remains will be reintered in their original spatial orientation and all grave markers will be replaced following conservation and repair. We are currently developing a list of objects to permanently curate that includes a small sample of personal effects, coffin hardware, textiles, and forensic skeletal samples. With the completion of this work, we will be able to return the cemetery to the family members in better condition that at the beginning of the project and having spurred many of these folks in their appreciation of their family's past. In this sense, we will have renewed and given voice to the residents of this silent city.


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