When it comes to envisioning their plans for the summer, most students dream of days on the beach perfecting their tan. Others may frantically apply for jobs or set out on adventures around the world.

Most, however, don’t plan to spend part of their summer in a cemetery.

Yet here I am, completing my fourth and final week of the ANTH 367 Heritage and Historical Archaeology field school in Victoria’s Jewish Cemetery. It’s hard to believe it’s already over. It’s even crazier to think of how many skills and experiences I have gained in such a short amount of time. Here are some of the things I’ve learned…

  1. Cemeteries Aren’t Scary

Contrary to what popular media depictions may lead you to believe, cemeteries aren’t scary places… At least, not this one. Located on the top of a hill in a charming neighborhood,

Victoria’s Jewish Cemetery is revered as a peaceful space to reflect and pay respects.

It’s also a fascinating spot from a historical perspective. Not only is it Western Canada’s first Jewish Cemetery, it’s also home to the remains of many influential individuals such as Canada’s first Jewish Judge, Samuel Davies Schultz, and Holocaust survivors from numerous concentration camps. To this day, the Cemetery continues to play a vital role within Victoria’s Jewish Community.

Entrance to Victoria’s Jewish Cemetery. Photograph by Mekyah V.

Headstone of Samuel Davies Schultz. Photograph taken from the Jewish Pioneers Blog 

  1. Headstones Are More than Stones

During the first two weeks of the field school, the class received an introduction to monument assessment and then did some data collection. This consisted of mapping and analyzing each monument to determine its materials, condition, age, and any damage. Through these processes, I started to appreciate how much variety exists among monuments. Some elaborate, while others are more simplistic. All beautiful and unique.

However, it wasn’t until we were given tours of the Cemetery that I really conceptualized where I was. Throughout the tours, we were told the life histories of some individuals buried at the Cemetery. As we heard each story, I realized that these aren’t just stones with names inscribed in them. These headstones are symbolic representations, marking the place where people are buried. People who, like myself, had families, passions, and stories to tell. Each part of a larger narrative in the story of life that ranged from being among the first Jewish settlers to Victoria, like Frank Sylvester, to harrowing recollections of surviving the Holocaust.

Headstone of Frank Sylvester. Frank was buried with his wife, Cecelia Sylvester. Photograph taken from the Jewish Pioneers Website.

  1. Technology Can Piece Together History

After gathering information for each of our plots, we would take photographs of the monuments. Among the photographs we took, some were used for photogrammetry- a technique, taught to us by Marla MacKinnon, that entails creating 3D models out of 2D photographs. For my model, my teammate and I chose to recreate the monument for Herman Schultz. This monument was made of marble and had sustained significant damage, making only traces of the inscription legible. However, through the use of AgiSoft PhotoScan, we were able to create a 3D model that we then uploaded into a program called MeshLab. MeshLab made it possible to play around with the lighting and see the parts of the inscription that were previously illegible. Being able to read something that hadn’t been visible for many years provided me an exciting look into the possibilities technology has for uncovering the past and impacting future generations.

Headstone of Herman Schultz. One of the many photographs used to create a 3D model. Photograph by Mekyah V.

3D model of the headstone of Herman Schultz in MeshLab. By modifying the lighting, the inscription became legible. Screenshot by Emily W.

Final Thoughts

Words cannot express the gratitude I feel towards the Congregation Emanu-El and members of the Jewish community in Victoria. Thanks to their continued support, I have had an amazing learning opportunity. Not only have I gained new technical skills that I can apply to further my career endeavors, but I have also had the privilege of learning about the intricate and beautiful Jewish culture. Overall, this has been an enriching experience that I will never forget.

Group photograph on the last day of the field school. Photograph by Amanda.