In the Fall 2017 semester, I participated in the Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project through a Public Archaeology course taught by Dr. Rowe at UTRGV. Through this project, our goal was not only to collect information for a comprehensive database, but to restore dignity to a pauper cemetery that has only recently been detangled from the grasps of nature. Through these measures, we aimed to establish a connection with the community. Our hope was that the community would become interested and involved with the project.
We began the course by reading about public archaeology and its parameters as a practice. We learned about the purpose of public archaeology, which is to engage the community and to work on a project that will benefit them. There are different levels of community engagement, from data being presented by archaeologists to community members actively participating in projects themselves. Of course, there are disagreements on the degree of involvement that should be enacted by community members, with some deeming them too inexperienced to properly participate in an archaeological project. I am of the belief that so long as the community wishes to actively participate, they should be allowed to do so. Working on a project that can affect, or is part of a community’s life should include the community. Often, community members can offer insight that would otherwise be unattainable by archaeologists unless they themselves are from the same community.
After doing some preliminary reading, as well as learning how to use the totally station, and everything was properly set up with the county, we were able to finally begin work onsite. We began by numbering a modest amount of flags (about 200), which we quickly realized were not nearly enough to mark all the graves of the pauper cemetery. Nonetheless, a few of us began placing them while the rest of the class dove into data collection. The county provided us with a porch, a table, water and a fully functional restroom, which genuinely facilitated our work. The biggest obstacle had to be the weather, especially since we were at the cemetery during the hottest period of the day. Having an area to take breaks from the sun (as the cemetery does not have a lot of shade) was of great assistance. Other obstacles included a general lack of knowledge in regards to gravestone materials, a lack of consensus on the units of measurement and a lack of a stable internet connection, which often caused the loss of input data. The first can be easily corrected through a brief lesson on the different materials used for gravestones. The second was an inconsistency on our part as students, which we can easily rectify in the continuation of this project. The third, however, is a problem that rests out of our hands. An issue that developed once all the flags had been placed (more than one thousand), was that they were not placed in a very cohesive pattern which resulted in a lot of confusion when searching for specific grave numbers to recollect lost data.
During the time that we were working at the cemetery, a few community members did contact us in search of information on lost relatives that had been buried at the pauper cemetery years ago. What is interesting to note about the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery is that while most pauper cemeteries fell out of use in the mid-1900s, the Hidalgo County Pauper Cemetery was in use almost into the 21st century. For this reason, the cemetery still receives many visitors which is all the more sad when considering the state of ruin it has fallen into. Unfortunately, due to the significant amount of graves still left to work on, we were unable to help most of the people who reached out to us. However, other community members did communicate with us in person while we were at the cemetery. Many were curious as to our objective, and when we explained the purpose of our project, they seemed pleased. A few even offered more in depth conversation.
At the cemetery, there were many graves that were damaged or illegible which allowed us very little opportunity for data collection. In worse situations, there were hints of a grave but no marker, or completely destroyed gravestones that could simply be overlooked as rubble. Since the county already had a suspicion that bodies had been buried without markers, two cadaver dogs and their trainers were flown in from California to inspect. I expected them to find a couple of bodies, but they found upwards of 20 unmarked graves. However, the implications of these findings are minimal, since it is nearly impossible to figure out who is buried in these unmarked graves.
As a beginning, the Fall 2017 Public Archaeology course has been immensely successful in achieving its goals. We not only collected large amounts of data and set up flags for next semester, but we were also able to establish a connection with the community. Since this has barely been the beginning of an ongoing project, the connection with the community is understandably minimal, but it provides the groundwork for a larger collaboration in the future. Fortunately, the Hidalgo County Public Cemetery Project has been much loved by many of us and most of us intend to continue working on this project in the semesters to come. There has already been talk about plans for next semester, including a Dia de los Muertos event at the cemetery where we could communicate with a larger part of the community. Events are a great way to garner community attention, and a Dia de los Muertos event would fit perfectly with what we are trying to achieve through this project, which is to establish a place that the community can be proud of when visiting and their loved ones. Hopefully in the future, all of our goals will be realized and the community will be able to hold on to something that was nearly lost to them.