Final Reflection

Working on this project has opened my eyes to many differences in culture here in the Valley, the cemeteries here are so much more a part of the community than the cemeteries where I grew up in Indiana. Up north, cemeteries are quiet, tranquil parks with rows of similar yet simple headstones, nothing is ever handmade or decorated. Here in Edinburg, this cemetery is almost alive with decorations, every time we visit we find that family members have come and freshened up some graves, or added new decorations. I find it very comforting to know that even tho the community has lived through difficult times, they never forgot their loved ones. It was striking to me that some headstones seemed much newer than the dates of death, indicating that many families had saved up for years until they could afford a headstone. Other families never could afford commercially made headstones, but they took the time to build unique and individual graves that spoke to who the deceased was in life. One of the headstones was a stainless steel television! These personal touches are something that I never saw up north, and to me they make our local cemeteries so much more meaningful.

I watched the movie Coco during this semester, and I really found the movie valuable in explaining the significance of a lot of the symbols and beliefs in the local culture. As a person who isn’t from this area, movies like Coco help me understand why cemeteries are so important to the community. In my community, cemeteries aren’t a part of the living world, you only go there for funerals. In this area, though, cemeteries are regularly visited and interacted with. When Dia de los Muertes comes this fall, I want to see how the local community celebrates it, and how they interact with the cemetery. I think this is something that is unique to this area, and we should not only record and research it but encourage and participate in it! This is part of the beauty of public archaeology, telling the story of how a local community personalizes a well known celebration and sharing that with the world.

I’ve also come to appreciate how much superstition is still alive in our region, voodoo dolls and other evidence of superstitious activity abound in the cemetery. Meanwhile, a majority of the headstones contain religious imagery of some sort, mostly Catholic. This blend of beliefs is fascinating to me, and I am very curious about what these voodoo symbols mean to those who participate in it, and how they reconcile their beliefs with Catholicism. I hope that next semester someone researches this. If we could interview the people who are placing these items in the cemetery that would be fantastic! I think this belief system is very powerful, and it would be enlightening to know just what these beliefs are.

Over this semester, we were able to record a large number of graves, we identified a few graves missing headstones, and we were able to publicize our project in two local news stories as well as at the UTRGV Engaged Scholar Symposium. I feel like we have accomplished alot, but it has been mostly data collection. In the coming semesters other classes will begin to put our data into context, and I am so excited to see what they can find! There are so many stories just waiting to be told, and in my opinion that is the main point of why we are doing this project: to tell the stories that would otherwise have been lost. I think the plans for next semester are going to go along way to making this happen. Shifting focus from data collection to application and research is going to reveal new directions we haven’t thought of. Statistics may show us commonalities we hadn’t considered, and maybe highlight times of social unrest that haven’t been well publicized. Next semester, with a focus on interacting more with the community and producing work from the data we have gathered so far, we will really see the project come alive. So far, we are just scratching the surface of what we can do!

But the most important part of what we do is for the community, how can our project benefit the families of those interred at the cemetery we are researching? I think the best benefit we can provide is a permanent record of their loved one’s grave, because the reality is the cemetery is not permanent. The headstones made of temporary materials, or that are falling apart due to age, or that are broken by storm damage; we have taken photographs of, recorded the official details, and thus we have created a virtual record of that grave. The virtual record can be edited, added to, and shared. One day in the future, these virtual records will be all that is left of some of these graves. So publicizing our research is the most important thing we can do, simply recording this data is more than has been done in the past. Telling the stories is nice, but the family can tell the stories too. Its a side benefit, the icing on the cake. They can’t, however, make a digital record of their loved one’s grave in a way that makes it meaningful. That is where we come in, by providing a digital forum and gathering place for information that is otherwise not available. In time, family members can start to add stories to our data, in addition to the stories that we learn in the course of our research. We can provide a way for the family members to bring context to our project online, which can make our project so much more rich and valuable.

I am very happy that I got to be involved in this project, and I hope that I can continue to be involved in it! I am curious about the information we will learn, but more importantly I am proud to be a part of a project that is permanently recording a part of this community’s heritage.


In the HCPCP, the stakeholders are everyone that lives in this community. This includes those surviving family members of the people buried there as well as those of us who live here but aren’t connected specifically to the cemetery. We (each of us students) are absolutely part of this community, some of us more overtly than others, but we all live and work in this community. The definition of this community I have in mind when I write this has certainly evolved and expanded beyond what is traditionally thought of as community (like neighborhoods or people of a certain culture) due to the advances of modern technology and the local integration of cultures and neighborhoods driven by UTRGV. So when I say this community, I am speaking very broadly of all those who live and work in the local community of Edinburg as well as the Lower Rio Grande Valley, because we share a common regional identity.


I think we all benefit from positive publicity and research outcomes, and we all look bad when it turns out that our community treated its poorest member’s dead with neglect. Hidalgo County is certainly not the only county to have neglected its “pauper” cemetery; bringing light to this example and showing how we can use research to start to repay for the neglect over the years is a great way to encourage other communities to do the same to their own neglected pauper cemeteries. Additionally, if it turns out that the county wants to change the way it handles this cemetery and invests in new procedures or archiving methods, we will pay for that with our tax money, as well as benefit from improved recordkeeping at the County offices. Further, asking the hard questions about how a community treats its poorest member’s dead loved ones makes us all consider our own mortality, and confront our own inner conflicts about death and what it means.


In this situation, the families of the dead in HCPCP would benefit greatly from our investigations, because they are able to see tangible benefits like the addition of historical and physical context to the graves. Without our foreign perspective, this project would not have happened. And if we held back on this investigation because of our cultural separation, then we would be doing actual harm to those family members, by not applying our knowledge and resources to preserving the heritage that they cannot preserve for themselves. Every day we wait, these graves fall further into disrepair, and lose more of their data. We have a duty to do what we can to help, because we have the skills and resources to do so. We know that we are outsiders to the community of people buried in the cemetery, but in a way, we are the descendants of the people who decided to treat the poor differently, and we are currently benefitting from the decisions made by those who were in charge of Hidalgo County in the past by taking advantage of the public services paid for by them. So, we are related. And we should work to do what we can to right the past wrongs.

Digital Techniques for Public Archaeology

The project might become more collaborative by inviting members of the public to do research on their own, and send us relevant information (that we then digitize and add to our database/website). I’m thinking newspaper articles and photographs of the deceased, journals, deeds or other paper documents that are related to them. The digital newspaper archives are very difficult to read online, and many of the Hispanic names here are so similar that it would be helpful for the families to provide us with specific articles, or if they could find the relevant articles online for us.

We could become more co-creative by perhaps making a “digital ofrenda” with pictures of the deceased and biographies written by the family, with pictures of their family members attached. The idea being that the families create the content and make the connections, we only provide the hosting platform. I like this idea personally, because so many of the graves have pictures of the deceased that aren’t visible anymore, or won’t be visible for long. The families wanted their loved one’s images to be remembered, we should honor and facilitate that desire.

The information that will be the most valuable to the community will be that which makes the occupants of the cemetery come back to life, in a sense. And that information is most likely in the possession of the families. I am sure families would appreciate the chance to tell their own stories and make their own interpretations.

The benefits 3D technology can provide to public archaeology projects are many! 3D technology can help us to accurately recreate real objects as digital models, which can then be shared, manipulated, printed, analyzed and many other things. 3D technology allows for an unlimited level of creativity in making admittedly boring data become relevant and interesting to the public. Not only is 3D tech about making physical models that can be shared and manipulated, but its also about making digital models. The possibilities when working with digital models are practically endless, and the more ubiquitous virtual reality software becomes the more creative we can become about how we use digital models of archaeological artifacts and sites. There are some pitfalls: like unscrupulous individuals making copies of artifacts and trying to pass them off as real; or someone using a digital model of an artifact in a disrespectful manner; or someone using our models to spread misinformation. Or lesser pitfalls exist as well, such as if the proliferation of artifact copies causes the public to value the original artifacts less, or if we make an error in our models that then becomes accepted as truth.

It may be possible to recreate the headstones or graves themselves, especially given the incredible variety in handmade grave markers: pictures alone simply do not do them justice! Additionally, it seems obvious that this cemetery is not static at all, the families are constantly coming in and redecorating, or making new grave markers, or the old grave markers are crumbling away as the families neglect them. We have a duty to preserve the cemetery as it exists now, and the most accurate and participatory method to do that is to recreate the grave markers digitally. Photographs alone are insufficient, I think. Further, this specific cemetery is unique. People in other areas of the world may experience the cemetery in a more immediate and visceral way if we can provide them with a digital representation of the cemetery itself. This makes what we do even more valuable, not only are we documenting and preserving, we are enabling a virtual personal experience with the cemetery for members of the public.

Public Archaeology

Mortimer Wheeler said, ‘It is the duty of the archaeologist, as of the scientist, to reach and impress the public, and to mould his words in the common clay of its forthright understanding’. I completely agree with this! What is the point of investigating the past if we do not somehow report our findings to others? My opinion here definitely doesn’t agree with the readings, I really don’t like the complication of adding a new label for everything we do! I believe that the term public archaeology is any archaeological pursuit which identifies the public at large as its primary consumer- irrelevant of the source of funding or political context in which it operates. If I am being completely honest, I would say that this means that ALL archaeology is inherently public archaeology. Even privately funded CRM salvage excavations which do not publish their findings immediately, can and do periodically publish summaries or compilations of their excavations in a region. The process of systematically collecting and maintaining excavation records and artifact repositories allows for a future use of such data for dissemination to the public. The primary intent of an archaeological excavation may not be to immediately create a public presentation of some sort, but if the data exists it has the potential to be repackaged into a publicly consumed product in the future. The act of recording an excavation, doing some sort of an analysis, and maintaining these records belies the understanding that this data is meant for others. And in my opinion, “others” and “the public at large” are the same thing. Therefore, I think it’s a superfluous label, we are quibbling over divisions on a spectrum again. Having said that, I very much appreciate the need for archaeologists to focus on the public as its primary consumer; I truly wish ALL archaeologists would agree that this is fundamental to archaeology. There is no point to what we do if we don’t share it with others.


Our project aligns with the goals of public archaeology in a very clear way, we have specifically stated that the intent of this project is to share our findings with as many people as we possibly can. We have created online databases so that people can see the data we collect, and we are compiling this data into formats which highlight interesting or informative aspects. We aren’t simply cataloging information and making pretty pictures, we want to provide context and identity to a forgotten piece of our local history and then tell as many people as we can what we learned! I am most interested in providing stories to attach to the graves, I truly feel that more than anything we learn about social trends or discriminations, personal stories will be the most impactful thing that we can provide to the relatives and the community. We already know this area was rife with inequality, it still is. I think the relatives of the people we are studying will appreciate their stories being told, more than anything else. I do think we can find those stories by investigating trends, so we need to do big picture as well as individual focuses. One of the things I’m also interested in is looking through the newspapers to find big stories of social unrest or other movements in the area, and trying to find some of the key players involved. Maybe I can focus on a decade and see if I can find any names we have recorded so far mentioned in a newspaper? I like the idea of being a forensic investigator!