J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Students of Gravestones and Stone Walls

With all these conferences on my schedule, I’ve been feeling a little pressed for time. Fortunately, with all these conferences on my schedule, I’m learning about websites that I can link to, and thus appear to be interesting without creating any content myself.

For instance, yesterday at the Omohundro Institute conference I heard from W. Dean Eastman and Kevin McGrath about PrimaryResearch.org, which archives a set of innovative local history projects for high-school students.

Among the intriguing units is a census of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century gravestones. Researchers—whether in high school or not—get the tools to map when in their local old New England burying-grounds the fashion in graveyard art shifted from images of skulls to images of the soul (looking like a cherub) to classical-style visuals. Eastman wrote about this project at Common-place a few years back.

Another PrimaryResearch.org project involves mapping and aging the “Stone Walls of New England.” But how can a group of young people figure out the ages of piles of stone? The team looked into lichen coverage as a possible yardstick, which required some interdisciplinary study of the types of lichen. They found that “Crustose lichens grow at a rate of one millimeter per year,” which implies that one can measure a patch of lichen on a wall and calculate back how many years it’s been growing—theoretically.

Any new yardstick like this has to be tested by using it to measure things one already knows the answer for. To test the notion of “lichenometry,” the students needed to find other New England stones that could be exactly dated. And where could those be? Hmmm. Graveyards!

Of course, the local environments for two walls might be different enough to affect lichen growth, making this method a general tool at best. But coming up with and testing a new way to examine the past is a terrific way to learn about history as a method of inquiry, not just a never-ending set of facts.

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