Death and Mourning in the 19th century

Every year around Halloween someone always asks if we’ve ever worked in a cemetery. The answer is yes and doing so has led us to consider how death was viewed and handled in the past, how people were mourned, and how we deal with it in the archaeological record.

In 2008 basement and back yard renovations of a private home in Manhattan exposed 19th century burial vaults. Vaults that had supposedly been emptied, the remains said to have been re-interred elsewhere long ago. At least according to Church and Deed records.

However, this was not the case as one of the vaults still contained eight burials: five adults and three children. The burials dated back between 1840 and1860, when the site was part of the yard belonging to the Church next door.

Through documentary research we were able to identify the last name of the family buried within the vault. We carefully disinterred the remains fully documenting the burials and the burial vault. Afterward the property owner had the remains re-interred.

Wooden Coffin Remains from Burial Vault 6. (Image – Chrysalis Archaeology)

Death and Mourning in the 19th century

The late 18th and 19th centuries saw a movement now referred to as the beautification of death. Through the production of material objects that commemorated the dead, the beautification of death extended the mourning process far beyond burial and there were parameters as to how long one should mourn depending on their relationship to the deceased.

The Mourning Process

Mourning pertaining to women occurred in three stages: deep mourning, second mourning, and half mourning.

Mourning a spouse generally would last one to 2 ½ years
For a parent: 6 months to a year
For children over 10 years old: 6 months to a year
For children under 10 years: 3 to 6 months
Infants: 6 weeks and up
For siblings: 6 to 8 months
For aunts and uncles: 3 to 6 months
For cousins: 6 weeks to 3 months
For aunts or uncles related by marriage: 6 weeks to 3 months
Grandparents: 6 months
For more distant relatives and friends: 3 weeks and up
(Passion for the Past 2011)

In the late nineteenth century there was a trend for the grieving to commission post-mortem photographs. These posed photos, taken of the subject after death, were often the only image a family would have of their loved one.

Mourning jewelry was also common. Mourning jewelry could consist of bracelets, necklaces, rings, or pins; and often had the initials, a photograph, or even a locket of the hair of the deceased woven into the design.

Mourners, especially women, wore all black and adhered to a variety of death and mourning rituals. These rituals included covering all reflective surfaces of the home with black cloth; stopping all clocks in the residence of the deceased at the time of death, restarting them only after burial; sending invitations for the funeral service to friends and family; and decorating the outside of the home with wreathes adorned in black and purple ribbon. Most of these rituals are no longer in practice today.

It is probable that both the mother and the child are deceased in this image as her hands are in an unnatural pose. It could also be that her eyes and eyelids have been painted. Image from History Undusted.

It is probable that both the mother and the child are deceased in this image as her hands are in an unnatural pose. It could also be that her eyes and eyelids have been painted. Image from History Undusted.

Human Hair Mourning Jewelry. (Image -

Human Hair Mourning Jewelry. (Image –

Coffin Hardware

A lesser spoken about aspect of the 19th century funerary process is the coffin itself. Once a simple pine box, this period begins to see coffins adorned in a more ornate fashion, and not just those belonging to people of monetary means. Coffin hardware in the mid 19th century appears to be largely mass produced and is common in nearly all burial contexts. This is an indication that decorative coffin hardware had become the norm and was not specific to a cultural group or socioeconomic class. The distinction is that hand made coffin hardware is common of those who were  more affluent.

Coffin hardware found in the burial vault Chrysalis documented consisted of nails, copper tacks, decorative fixtures, handles, and a coffin plate.

Nails are considered  functional hardware, as they were used in the construction of the coffin. The presence of copper tacks, a functional decorative hardware, likely indicates that at least one of the coffins in the vault contained a fabric lining. The tacks would have been a decorative way to secure the lining in the coffin.

The coffin handles recovered featured a cherub design. These would also be considered a functional decorative hardware part of the coffin. The coffin plate, found within one of the burials served a decorative purpose while also identifying or commemorating the deceased.

Coffin Handle. (Image - Chrysalis Archaeology)

Coffin Handle. (Image – Chrysalis Archaeology)

Coffin plates were attached to the lid of a coffin and were generally inscribed with a name.

Coffin plate.

It should be noted these remains were found before the City of New York – Department of Health enacted new guidelines for the removal and re-interment of human remains.


Basse, Karissa Anne
2013    Coffin Hardware Analysis and Chronology of the Head Cemetery, Robertson County. The University of Texas at Austin. Austin, Texas.

Bell, Edward.
1990    The Historical Archaeology of Mortuary Behavior: Coffin Hardware From                            Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Historical Archaeology, 24(3):54-78.

Karen Rae Mehaffey.
1993    The After-Life: Mourning Rituals and the Mid- Victorians. Laser Writers Publishing. 

Passion for the Past.
2011    Thoughts and Social History for the Living Historian.

Tempesta, Erica.
2012    Not your average bling! Meet the women who collect morbid mourning jewelry made from HUMAN HAIR.

2014    History Undusted. The dusty bits of history undusted and presented to the                        unsuspecting public.

Peace Forms

“What is your favorite artifact?”

The infamous question that archaeologists always get asked. We all have favorite artifacts; sometimes our favorite artifact changes with each project and some stay with us for a long time.  This is the first in an ongoing series of our (many) favorite artifacts.

Our first entry istitled “Peace Forms” by Diane George.

 Window glass found at New York City’s South Street Seaport in 2012.

History is made of moments. A collection of moments creates a day, a month, a year, a lifetime. Archaeologists don’t usually get to see moments, to connect to the experience of someone long dead, even when we have the advantage of using documents as we do in historical archaeology. We look at the bigger picture: what did the people in this household, or tenement, or community eat? What types of dishes or medicines did they buy? What can these things tell us about them? But an artifact that shows us a moment… that is a special artifact.

The first time I experienced this was when, as a student working in the archaeology lab at Brooklyn College, I found a thumbprint preserved in a piece of stoneware found during excavations at New York’s City Hall Park. Thumb to thumbprint, I thought about the potter, who perhaps was distracted by what he would be having for dinner, or how he was going to pay his debts, or any other of the million things that still distract us at our jobs today, and I experienced the artifact, the simple sherd from a stoneware jar, as a moment in time, one of many in the life of the unknown potter.

I’ve always loved the scene in Peter Weir’s brilliant film, Gallipoli, where Archy and Frank (the latter played by a young Mel Gibson), about to fight in one of the bloodiest and most senseless campaigns of World War I, sit atop an Egyptian pyramid at dusk, carving their names in the ancient stone. That is the epitome of a moment, fragmentary yet infinite, accentuated by the vastness of time represented in their surroundings.

This brings me to my favorite artifact from a multi-year project at New York City’s South Street Seaport. While monitoring construction work for upgrades to utilities, Chrysalis found almost 25,000 artifacts that had been deposited in a boat slip in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Among these thousands of artifacts is a small piece of window glass with an aqua tint that bears the words “Peace forms o–” hand engraved in a neat script.

Archaeologists do come across names, dates, or other writing on artifacts and buildings, although finding handwriting on buried window glass fragments is relatively rare. People were putting graffiti on their buildings in ancient Rome. The walls at Pompeii are covered with writings including political slogans and profanities, reflecting moments perhaps of pique, grandstanding, rivalry, civic pride, callousness, transcendance and depravity.

There are a number of examples from more recent history of writing specifically on window glass, which appears to have been a fairly common practice in England in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Sir Walter Raleigh is said to have written of his fear of failure on a window at the Court of Queen Elizabeth I. The writing implement was a ring that contained a sharply pointed diamond made specifically for such a purpose.

Diamond ring similar to the one owned by Sir Walter Raleigh, from Beadle’s Monthly, vol. I, page 268.

In the late 1800s, Alice Douglas-Pennant, the daughter of a Lord in northern Wales, fell in love with a gardener and was confined by her father to her room in Penrhyn Castle. She carved the words “essere amato amando” – “to be loved while loving” – on a window pane: possibly a moment of joy in the face heartbreak.

Writing on the window of Penrhyn Castle, from BBC News.

Children at school have etched their names on window glass: three girls named Fannie, Estelle and Lucy in 1887 at the State Female Normal School in Farmville; John B. Gerrish in 1869 at Harvard. Even famous authors weren’t above leaving a reminder that they existed in a moment: Dickens, Keats, and Twain are among those who have etched their names onto a window at Shakespeare’s birthplace.

The archaeology doesn’t give us a lot to go on to determine the meaning of the window glass fragment from the Seaport. It was written around the time of the American Revolution, almost certainly by a resident of the area, since the Slip was filled largely with trash from the neighborhood. This was an upper class community of merchants and artisans, and the etching may have been done with a diamond ring, such as the one owned by Sir Walter Raleigh. The handwriting is neat and legible, the work of an educated individual. What the author was trying to say can only be filled in by speculation. I like to picture someone standing at her window at the end of a war that was long and difficult for the City, receiving the news that the bloodshed and horror were ending. Perhaps as she looked out over the East River, reflecting on the resilience of New York, she wrote something like “Peace forms over our city”, freezing a moment in glass to be found by archaeologists over 200 years later.

What do you think is the message on the window glass? Please share your ideas in the comments.


“Finger Rings.” Beadle’s Monthly, A Magazine of To-Day, Volume I, pages 260-267, 1866.

“Lohmann: Etching Their Names in History.” Richmond Times Dispatch, March 18, 2013.

“Penrhyn Castle Alice Douglas-Pennant ‘love story’ uncovered.” BBC News, October 28, 2012.

“The Mysterious Writing on the Glass.” Inside the Peabody Museum, June 2010.

“Rachel Was Here.” Annette Cook, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, January 2010.

The scene from Gallipoli can be found here:


Chrysalis Archaeologist Eileen Kao to Speak on “Hot Button Topic”


Sharing highlights from what’s likely to be her master’s thesis, Chrysalis archaeologist and field director Eileen Kao has developed her first CNEHA presentation entitled “Hot Button Topic.” Eileen performed additional research on the Revolutionary War era British regimental buttons we found at the Seaport last year and began exploring the idea that uniforms create a sense of belonging, affecting the behavior of those who wear them. Theories abound as to how clothing creates and enforces a sense of identity, and our unearthed button treasures most certainly played a part in defining the roles of the British, who are often depicted as ruthless and unyielding during the British occupation of NYC.


Painting of John Theophilus Rawdon-Hastings (Trotter 1776)

About the Buttons

Our excavation recovered a total of six buttons from three different regiments. Because there were many different ranks and types of regiments, button styles varied. Regimental soldiers wore plain buttons with simple raised numerals and a rope border. Rarely, a button would have the regimental number only. An officer’s button was more elaborate; it often featured a domed button cover in gold or silver over a button made from bone or other material. Based on their proximity to marked specimens, plain, unmarked metal buttons likely belonged to other military personnel.

Seduction, Hierarchy and Utility

The seduction, hierarchy and utilitarian principles generally define how clothing reflects identity. In relation to military clothing, the hierarchy principle applies to uniforms that reveal a soldier’s rank and position. The utilitarian principle relates to the function and purpose of the clothing. Today’s military uniforms are predominately utilitarian and discreet. In the past, battles were fought face-to-face, and ornate details were more prevalent. The seduction principle applies to body shape and perception. While often more relevant to women’s clothing, it was also utilized to enhance the perception of masculinity and strength. For example, military uniforms that accentuated the chest and shoulders implied greater strength; tall hats and heeled boots made officers look taller and more intimidating.

Picture4Did the Clothes Make the Man?

To a British soldier, wearing the redcoat uniform meant being a part of one of the strongest and most successful imperial nations of the world. The clothing itself imparted legitimacy and authority as well as a sense of solidarity. With buttons to further define hierarchy and implied superiority, the uniform may have made a significant contribution to the infamously ruthless behavior of high-ranking British officers. Anonymity is another factor that may have influenced British military behavior. Some psychologists believe that those defined as part of a group feel immune to personal blame. Soldiers could easily hide behind their uniforms and feel less accountable for cruel behaviors or lack of compassion.


Small Buttons with Big Stories

Although it’s impossible to track the exact history of our Revolutionary War Buttons, we can safely assume that it helped to play a symbolic role in the interactions between British soldiers and the residents of New York City.

Grand Central NYC: Alyssa Loorya to Present at TEDx Conference

Chrysalis owner and archaeologist Alyssa Loorya has been invited to present at the November 1st TEDxNY conference. The annual, independently organized TEDx events bring New York’s greatest thinkers, teachers and innovators together with an audience to showcase their projects, visions and passions, and inspire listeners to create a greater impact on the world with their own ideas. TEDx presenters wrap their genius into a concise and powerful presentation that’s 18 minutes or less in length.

Alyssa’s Presentation: Grand Central NYC

The theme of Alyssa’s presentation touches on New York City as a global capital. It’s a community where real people have lived and made an impact on the world for generations from their own neighborhoods.

city hall park

Lithograph of 18th century activity on the Common (City Hall Park)

History in Pictures

A biography of the city can be pieced together using archaeological finds, past and current photographs and threads of information. Alyssa’s experience in archaeology has shaped her photography and vice versa. Old photos and lithographs help her document changing landscapes, priorities and approaches to social issues such as capital punishment and treatment of the poor.

City Hall Park in the 18th century

City Hall Park in the 18th century

Re-invention of City Hall Park

Alyssa will discuss the relevance of historical timelines such as the transformation of City Hall Park, which was once a place for public protests and executions and home to prisons and barracks for British troops during the revolution, long before the construction of City Hall.

city hall park 18th century

city hall park 18th century

Stop to Consider the Past

It’s easy to forget that NYC is a series of islands. The point was driven home when it suffered devastating effects from hurricane Sandy in 2012. As archaeology rediscovers and documents the area’s intimate relationship with water, we look to the past to help determine the best route to a more sustainable and stable future as we rebuild the city.

Real People, Worldwide Impact

From lithographs detailing New York’s first poor houses to photos of its changing skyline, archaeological evidence paints a picture of the city as a global force unlike any other. TEDx attendees will discover New York’s people, its past and perhaps its future through the careful documentation of an archaeologist devoted to its place in history.

Learn more about the TEDx program, or find an event near you, visit