DEBS: Discovering England’s Burial Spaces

Burial spaces are situated within communities across England.  As well as providing a place for commemoration and burial, they also fulfil a range of other personal, environmental and social functions.

These spaces contain a wealth of information about our past, of interest to archaeologists, historians, genealogists and the community themselves. The information provides insight into the social history of a community, for example, memorials tell us about the faiths, professions, and occupations present within past communities, and this can inform contemporary activities such as urban development projects and community cohesion work. However, many of the community groups willing to invest time in capturing this data have limited expertise in the use of digital technology and there are limited tools in place to capture the valuable data about heritage sites in a coordinated and centralised way.

The DEBS project is addressing this challenge by working with community groups and heritage environment decision-makers to develop tools that will allow information to be captured more easily and brought together so that it can be accessed at a national level by multiple stakeholders, whilst also making it available to researchers and amateur historians at a local level.

We are developing a national database for burial space which will take the information provided by community groups and enable interrogations as part of a larger, more holistic dataset at a local, regional and national level. This is being developed in partnership with Archaeology Data Service, the national centre for digital data for archaeology, and in consultation with Historic England, the public body caring for England’s historic environment. In the first instance DEBS is creating a record of ‘at risk’ memorials; enabling church groups to interpret and present the history of their community in their own way.

In parallel we are collaborating with several community groups across England, brokering relationships between heritage organisations, local research groups and groups not active on local history – such as photography groups and youth groups - to re-discover and re-imagine burial spaces. We are facilitating the collection of a wide range of data including textual transcriptions and photographs, as well as 3D and 2D interactive digital models. Groups are provided with training and digital tools and resources to enable recording and development of individual and community narratives by undertaking their own research and capturing valuable, at risk data.

Through use of emerging digital technologies, the DEBS project is enabling collaborative historical and archaeological research, encouraging the sharing stories of communities past and present whilst also helping to conserve these precious historical and natural environments.

While currently focused on burial spaces, the tools developed here and the insights gained from working with communities have the potential to reconfigure public participation in heritage in many areas.



Photo credits to Dr Nicole Beale