Bringing Back a Special Place: The Rutherford County Archaeological Society’s Old City Cemetery Project

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 27

Laura Bartel, M.A.,
Adjunct Instructor of Anthropology, Motlow State Community College
President Rutherford County Archaeological Society

The Rutherford County Archaeological Society (RCAS), a 501 (c)(3) non-profit association based in Murfreesboro, Tennessee will be three years old this November. 0A4290FD-65BE-48D1-ACE0-33BD052CA103We are a diverse group of varying ages and backgrounds, bringing together local professional archaeologists and community members to share, explore, and experience prehistoric and historic archaeology of the county and beyond. We serve to inform the public about the value of archaeology and the importance of archaeological research. We work together to promote stewardship and preservation of our historic and prehistoric archaeological resources and the cultural heritage that we all share.

Our monthly meetings are open to the public and feature a guest speaker. We host a yearly Archaeology Activity Day with displays and hands-on activities. We also participate in other middle Tennessee archaeology and history-related events and educational outreach programs.

This past year we have expanded our presence and engaged community volunteers with two new projects: our Conservation, Restoration, and Development of Public Programs for Murfreesboro’s Old City Cemetery project, and our short term Civil War battlefield cultural resource management mapping and recovery mission, the Trust Point Hospital Expansion Archaeological Survey and Salvage Project. This blog covers our cemetery project. We will be sharing information about the TrustPoint project when we complete our analysis.

The Old City Cemetery Site
The 3.5-acre site known as Murfreesboro’s “Old City Cemetery” encompasses the buried archaeological remains of the 1820 Old First Presbyterian Church, the church’s original burying ground, and the city’s first public cemetery, added on in 1837. The church was partially excavated in 2003 by Dr. Kevin E. Smith and because of his research and efforts, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was Dr. Smith who suggested to me that we consider adopting the Old City Cemetery for a community project.

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The front entrance to the Old City Cemetery site. The 40×60 church stood to the right of the entrance and faced the street. 

This special place and hallowed ground represents the early days of “Murfreesborough” and Tennessee. The church was the location of significant social and political events and later Civil War-related activities.  Murfreesboro served as the capital of Tennessee from 1818-1826. The TN legislature met at the church in 1822, as the log county courthouse had burned down. In attendance were James K. Polk, David “Davy” Crockett, Aaron Venable Brown, and several other notable Tennesseans.  At this meeting, Andrew Jackson was nominated for his first run for president in 1824. (He later won in 1828).  During the Civil War, the church served as a field hospital, storehouse, encampment, and perhaps a stable. The church was destroyed by Union soldiers and its remains are now one of the best preserved historic archaeological sites in Tennessee.

Degradation of the Cemetery
There are close to 300 standing gravestones in the church burying ground and cemetery. Many more are partially buried or completely underground. Founding families and early leaders of Murfreesboro, as well as soldiers, enslaved, and other local citizens are buried here.  Hundreds of soldiers from both Union and Confederate armies were buried here temporarily or permanently during the Civil War.  We do not know the location of many of these burials.

The city-owned cemetery is fenced and closed. The Parks and Recreation Department maintains the property by regular mowing of the grass, but the site is in dire need of attention.  Gravestones are deteriorating from lack of care, many are damaged, and broken stones and box tombs lie about the property. There are sunken areas throughout. In 2008, the Tennessee Preservation Trust named the cemetery as one of the state’s most endangered historic places, noting that the gravestones were suffering from “neglect and improper care.” This special place has been forgotten. Its historic significance is not being shared with the community, school children, or heritage tourists.

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The stones have been neglected and some have been damaged by caustic solutions such as bleach, have fallen over, and are partially buried. Several broken box tombs lie about the cemetery.

Our Project in Brief
In March 2017, with approval and a use agreement from the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, we began our revitalization project. RCAS and other community volunteers are helping to bring back this special place. I direct the project, Matthew Whitten serves as our cemetery fieldwork crew chief and GPS/GIS coordinator, Dan Allen is our professional cemetery conservationist, who is donating his time and materials for repairs, and Peggy Paulson serves as our prime genealogy researcher.

We have many objectives and have begun with non-damaging gravestone cleaning, repair and conservation of the stones, and advising the city on grounds maintenance. We will be conducting a re-survey of the stones, monuments, and other features and map their location with a high-resolution GPS to create a GIS data file. We will digitize existing maps and records and new information. Our public interpretation objectives include staffing open days, providing presentations and tours, erecting signage, and creating a brochure and a map for self-guided tours.

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(Left) Cleaning day at the Maney-Murfree family plot. We use the safe and effective biocide, D/2.  (Right) Dan Allen and Matt Whitten repairing and re-setting a broken obelisk.

Other important objectives are planned and include having geophysical research done to determine the location of buried gravestones, unmarked graves, and empty burial shafts. We also want to erect a visual representation of the Old First Presbyterian Church, ideally with a “ghost structure” which resembles a basic frame. An advantage of this type of representation is that the bottom area is open, allowing for any future excavations.

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Erecting a ghost structure over the archaeological site of the Old First Presbyterian Church, like this example from Old Salem, North Carolina, would have tremendous benefits for public interpretation, education, and heritage tourism.

Although we have many plans for this site, our first and foremost goal is to rescue it from further degradation. We accept the responsibility of preserving and protecting this special place and to remember and honor those who are buried there.  By providing the community with a public history and archaeology hands-on experience, promoting stewardship and preservation of local sites, and by providing a place where history can be experienced, we hope to make a meaningful difference. With the dedicated efforts of the members of RCAS, community volunteers, and support from the public, this earliest piece of Murfreesboro – a forgotten treasure in our midst – will become a place of which the city, state, and country can be proud.

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