Marking life and death on St. John, Virgin Islands, 1718-1950: An historical archaeology of commemoration through objects, space, and transformation

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Douglas V. Armstrong


Historical archaeology, Caribbean, Funerary practices, Colonialism, Cemeteries and grave markers, African diaspora

Subject Categories



This study investigates the use and transformation of burial sites and practices on St. John in the former Danish West Indies from 1718-1950. I examine sixty burial sites and more than four hundred grave markers that represent commemorative practices created by all population sectors, including the enslaved, European and African descent free landowners and residents, and Euro- and Afro-Moravian church members. Using multi-dimensional perspectives on landscapes and land use, documentary and ethnohistoric data, and GIS analysis, I interpret how people from diverse race, class, religious, kinship, gender, and age backgrounds created mortuary practices in diverse social transformation contexts. I also tie these analyses to regional information for the Caribbean to understand St. Johnian practices in relation to broader behavioral and material fluctuations.

This multi-scalar and diachronic study reflects continuities and changes that occurred in St. Johnian burial and commemoration. In the early eighteenth century, some commemorative and burial distinctions between population sectors represented differences in how European and African descendents historically buried their dead while others were products of new political, economic, and cultural interactions. Over time, burial sites and grave markers were impacted by modifications in social relationships, responses to death, site and marker preference, access to resources, and market availability. Despite such fluctuations, burial sites for most population sectors remained important symbols of personal and legal attachment to land and community. As such, burial sites are important cultural resources to the people of St. John, and this study improves our understanding and preservation of them.


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