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historical archaeologist’s perspective on Rookwood Cemetery

Grace Karskens Sites and Scenes 1999

While a historian may emphasise written documents, an historical archaeologist is interested in the material evidence of a society – what people make and build and leave behind. This may include buildings, bridges, fences, machinery, or even headstones.

Headstones are what historical archaeologists describe as artefacts These artefacts can be the basis for an important historical study of society. The date of death recorded in the inscription allows monuments to be accurately dated. In a large cemetery, monuments can be dated and compared over time.

A large number of designs can be identified in Rookwood Necropolis. Types of monuments include crosses, angels, pedestals with urns, headstones, and obelisks.

Although Rookwood Necropolis opened in 1867, the cemetery features monuments which date back as far as 1798. As cemeteries were overtaken by development, the remains and headstones were often moved to another cemetery. Rookwood has received the artefacts from several of Sydney’s earliest cemeteries. These include:

  • The old burial ground in George Street (also known as the Town Hall Cemetery or Cathedral Close Cemetery);
  • Devonshire Street Cemetery;
  • Petersham Roman Catholic Cemetery; and
  • Balmain Cemetery.

Rookwood Necropolis therefore has the remains of two centuries of Sydneysiders! That’s five generations!

Changes in monument style can be detected in Rookwood Necropolis. Styles of monuments can be related to certain historical periods. Rookwood is particularly famous for its elaborate monuments dating from the late nineteenth century.

The changes in the style of monument reflect society’s changing ideas about architecture, design, and how to remember the dead. In the Victorian era, gravestones were erected to sum up a person’s life and achievements, and to express the love and grief of the family. People often saved up a lot of money to be able to afford a decent funeral and monument. Monuments were often large and impressive. In the twentieth century, monuments have become smaller in size, with less decoration. This reflects a simpler approach to remembering the dead.

Rookwood is the size of a suburb , and reflects social diversity just like any suburb of the living. Class distinctions are often perpetuated in headstone designs. It seems that size did matter! While the rich could afford ornate monuments, the lower classes may have had a simple headstone or no monument at all. The wealthy were also often buried in the most visible part of the cemetery – near major roads, or on the highest point.

Headstones can reveal a lot about the deceased. Sometimes they illustrate the occupation of the deceased. A fireman’s hat, a tram, a wheel and cogs, and ferries can all be seen carved on the headstones in Rookwood.

Gravestones also illustrate the influx of European migrants, who have brought their traditional burial customs to Australia. The Russian Orthodox community is well represented in the cemetery. Their headstones usually feature the Orthodox cross. There are other areas in which Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Quakers, Gypsies, Ukrainian Orthodox, Estonians, Latvians, Assyrians, and Muslims have all made a distinctive visual impact through their gravestones.

Rookwood has rows of magnificent family vaults made of granite and marble. These are popular amongst the Italian Catholic community. Many of the vaults have photos of the deceased attached to the wall near the inscriptions. These large modern vaults cost anywhere between $35 000 and $100 000 to construct – and this does not include the land!

The National Trust has recognised the historical importance of Rookwood Necropolis by placing the cemetery on its register of heritage sites in NSW. Rookwood provides, through its monuments and gravestones a representative social document in the history of New South Wales, reflecting the origins of our community and changing attitudes to life and death.

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