Saving our history, one stone at a time

By Gregory Vogel


            Denk Mahl reads an inscription on the oldest remaining gravestone at Schumann Cemetery, high on the bluffs above Kampsville.  Something of a play on words in German, Denk Mahl recalls "Denkmal" (a monument, like a gravestone), while meaning "stop and think" or "think of me" at the same time. 


            Denk Mahl expresses the central goal of archeology: to recall times past, to understand the lives of people from long ago through their monuments and artifacts, simply to think of those who lived before and to learn from them what we can.


            Archeology is most often associated with the prehistoric past – we study artifacts left by Native Americans 1,000, 5,000, even 12,000 years ago and more.  But we are also keenly interested in what we can learn from artifacts created in more recent, historic times. 


            The Center for American Archeology has the twin goals of education and research, and we are currently undertaking a project that encompasses both of these at historic Schumann Cemetery.  Sponsored by a Save Our History grant from The History Channel, students from both Calhoun and Carrollton High Schools are researching the background of the cemetery and the people buried there.


            County census records, newspaper obituaries, naturalization rolls, marriage lists, and other vital statistics records are helping us to understand who they were and what this area was like in their time.  The students are also contacting anyone who has ties to the cemetery, to document history through personal accounts and recollections. 


            The cemetery is currently overgrown with briars and honeysuckle, and difficult to access at the top of a high bluff.  The gravestones are in surprisingly good shape, however, for monuments dating to the 1840s or earlier.  Most of the names and dates are still readable, and even fine engravings are visible under the right lighting: cemetery motifs of heavenly gates, broken columns signifying a life cut short, flowers and vines, sheafs of wheat, even a figure holding a scythe.


            When winter breaks and the weather warms up (Oh, when?!), the students will clear the cemetery and record each of the gravestones in detail.  Along with digital photographs, this information will be published in a pamphlet and put on-line for genealogists, historians, archeologists, or anyone at all interested in the past of this area. 


            Why cemeteries?  Most objects of archeological study are accidental: artifacts discarded, left behind, forgotten or no longer needed.  Cemeteries, as lasting monuments to the memory of loved ones, are created for the purpose of communicating ideas to later generations.  Gravestones are voices from the past and history personified – direct links from previous times meant specifically for the future, specifically for us.  We are interested in cemeteries of the past because they were created for us to be interested in them.


            Cemeteries are ideal locations for the study of history because they reflect the people, the traditions, and the important events of a local region.  Every cemetery is unique and offers a view of the past that can only be seen from its own grounds.


            A cemetery tour of the Lower Illinois River valley would be a rich adventure in history: from the grand Elijah Lovejoy monument in Alton, larger-than-life granite statues on the upland plains north of Carrollton, a full-sized anchor set in concrete overlooking the Mississippi River at Hamburg, to modest marble, granite, and limestone gravestones in family plots, marking the locations of tens of thousands of the past inhabitants of this area. 


            While gravestones contain a great deal of information about the past, many hold mysteries as well.  At Schumann Cemetery, for example, several plain limestone slabs are set upright in a row, marking the locations of interments with no formal gravestones.  Who these stones are marking, how and when the people died, and why they are buried at Schumann Cemetery, is still a mystery.  Drop me a line if you have any ideas.  In the meantime, Denk Mahl.