October 04, 2006

Town's "Outdoor Museums" Revisited

They're outdoor museums. Treasured physical manifestations of artwork created by this country's earliest settlers. And, without the town's ongoing efforts aimed at preservation and education, Southampton's historic cemeteries are a resource that could soon be gone forever.

So believes Judy Peters, a project director and cultural resources expert from Data Management & GIS Development of New Jersey, who appeared before the Southampton Town Board recently to discuss the second phase of a condition survey report of the town's historic cemeteries.

The first phase of the project was geared toward focusing on and developing methodology for studying each of the town's 48 burial sites, as well as 1178 markers and associated footstones, with the second phase aimed at surveying and mapping each of the sites, and ultimately entering information into a town database, after which a final report will follow.

The goal, said Peters, is to survey and document each of the sites and make recommendations that can be built into an ongoing maintenance plan.

Recently, Peters accompanied Councilwoman Linda Kabot and other town personnel for a tour of two area cemeteries, Old Southampton Burial Grounds and the North Sea Burial Grounds, with an eye toward maintenance education; many headstones are ruined, she said, by lawnmowers and other ground attendants who might not realize how fragile and easily destroyed such artifacts, dating back to the 1600s, might be.

The project, which kicked off in 2002, is crucial, said Kabot. "We're looking to raise awareness of these memorial parks," she said, with efforts geared toward management as well as a stewardship plan.

Peters agreed: "They're irreplaceable representations of the past," she said. "It's important to look at these as collections.

Peters added that no stones are treated until it's been surveyed. "A conditions study is critical."

Conditions are mixed among Southampton's headstones, said Peters, with some the victims of biogrowth such as lichen, erosion, fragmentation, as well as some that have tilted or fallen, or been damaged by lawn mowers. Most markers, or 78%, are marble, which become brittle with age. Five percent are slate, which is rare and very valuable; some, called "death heads," are examples of early artwork. Sandstone markers, she said, are most at risk, and can dissolve if touched or disturbed by a mover. Other stones are both granite and metal.

Kabot said if a management plan had been called for earlier, many headstones might not have been damaged. "They're national treasures," she said. "We have to raise awareness." Kabot added that stewardship was crucial to the preservation of the town's treasures into the future.

Both Councilman Steve Kenny and Councilwoman Nancy Graboski lauded the presentation; Kenny said such work sessions should be recorded so that they might be viewed by the public and enhance education efforts.

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