Material Rituals

Sheffield General Cemetery


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Material Rituals

This project began with a two-day inten­sive research res­i­den­cy at the Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery. Includ­ing a series of tours and trails led by the Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery Trust and the Geo­log­i­cal Soci­ety, the res­i­den­cy pro­vid­ed insights in to the his­to­ry of the site. The end of the research res­i­den­cy was marked by a pub­lic in-con­ver­sa­tion, in which Maud Haya-Baviera, Vic­to­ria Lucas and Joan­na Whit­tle talked about their findings. 

Back in the stu­dio, as with all of their research, there has been a long peri­od of mak­ing in response to the objects, doc­u­ments and sites encoun­tered, which has result­ed in a col­lec­tion of new art­works and relat­ed events. 

This project was gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed by the Place and Com­mu­ni­ties Research Group at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cen­tral Lancashire. 

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Victoria Lucas

Appropriated Gestures, Symbolic Apparitions

The Egypt­ian Gate’, sit­u­at­ed at the top entrance to the non-con­formist half of the Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery, appro­pri­ates iconog­ra­phy from a vari­ety of belief sys­tems; but most pre­dom­i­nant­ly the influ­ence is Egypt­ian. This style is a result of Napoleon’s deci­sion to include schol­ars in the inva­sion of Egypt as a part of his 1798 cam­paign.1 Their sub­se­quent stud­ies of this ancient cul­ture became the foun­da­tion of Egyp­tol­ogy, and Egypt­ian-inspired design and sym­bol­ism seeped in to Euro­pean arts and cul­ture from the first half of the 19th Cen­tu­ry. Samuel Worth’s archi­tec­tur­al designs at the Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery form part of this move­ment, and the bor­rowed shapes, styles and sym­bols are vis­i­ble across the ceme­tery grounds.

Ouroboros Sym­bol Fea­tured on the Gates of the Top Entrance to the Ceme­tery. Pho­to: Vic­to­ria Lucas

The old­est-known ouroboros appeared on a gold­en shrine in the tomb of Tutankhamen – King Tut’ – in Egypt in the 13th Cen­tu­ry BC, after a brief lull in tra­di­tion­al reli­gion brought about by his pre­de­ces­sor, Akhen­at­en. Accord­ing to lead­ing Egyp­tol­o­gist Jan Ass­mann, the sym­bol refers to the mys­tery of cycli­cal time, which flows back into itself”. The ancient Egyp­tians under­stood time as a series of repet­i­tive cycles, instead of some­thing lin­ear and con­stant­ly evolv­ing; and cen­tral to this idea was the flood­ing of the Nile and the jour­ney of the sun.

Joobin Bekhrad


The ouroboros sym­bol fea­tures in a num­ber of ancient tra­di­tions, con­texts and geo­gra­phies, as Joobin Bekhrad has ascer­tained.2 In addi­tion to Egypt­ian sym­bol­ism, the tail devour­er’ is sig­nif­i­cant in Greek alche­my, Norse mythol­o­gy, Hin­duism, Iran­ian Mithraism and Mesoamer­i­can reli­gion. It is also com­par­i­ble to the Chi­nese yin and yang, depict­ing the har­mo­ny of con­trary forces, as well as the cos­mic dichoto­my of light and dark­ness in Manichaeism and the Zoroas­tri­an phi­los­o­phy of the far­va­har, which first posit­ed that each soul was com­posed of a pure, divine com­po­nent, as well as a human one”.3  

The two ouroboros snakes sit­u­at­ed on the entrance gate to the Gen­er­al Sheffield Ceme­tery are won­der­ful­ly grotesque. Their mouths are elon­gat­ed, more croc­o­dile that ser­pent, and their swollen fea­tures sug­gest that they have in fact choked on their own tails and met their end (or begin­ning). The gates have been paint­ed numer­ous times since their instal­la­tion, and are now in a state of entrop­ic break­down thanks to the effects of Sheffield­’s volatile climes. 

The snakes, disheveled and tired, are slow­ly shed­ding their paint­ed skins. This process of flak­ing and peel­ing is doc­u­ment­ed in the sur­face of the cast made dur­ing the res­i­den­cy, as mot­tled frag­ments of paint along with its absence are high­light­ed by the soot and dirt that mark stylised scales. A sym­bol of rebirth and renew­al emerges from the mate­ri­al­i­ty and lim­i­ta­tions of exte­ri­or met­al paint. 

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In addi­tion to the two ouroboros sym­bols, there are depic­tions of fasces, a sym­bol of pow­er and uni­ty dat­ing back to the Etr­uscan civil­i­sa­tion, lat­er adopt­ed by the Roman army, and sub­se­quent­ly used as an emblem of author­i­ty in Fas­cist Italy. What I find deeply inter­est­ing here is how the mean­ing of these sym­bols, both the fasces and the ouroboros, have been trans­formed and adapt­ed over time and space by dif­fer­ent civil­i­sa­tions, aspi­ra­tions and belief sys­tems. There is a mal­leabil­i­ty to their power. 

Fasces Sym­bols Form­ing part of the Entrance Gate to the Cemetery

Arti­fact Devel­oped Dur­ing the Residency 
Maud Haya-Baviera

If Only Rome, series of five digital collages in response to the Romantic and early Victorian eras, giclee print on Hahnemühle Matt FineArt cotton archival paper, 14 x 14 cm

If Only Rome

Dur­ing our res­i­den­cy, I ini­tial­ly con­cen­trat­ed my atten­tion onto mor­tu­ary orna­ments. The urns, were par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing to me, as they were a com­mon­ly cho­sen emblem adorn­ing tomb­stones. My main inter­est, though, lay in the fact that, while tes­ti­fy­ing of the death of the body, they also marked the deceased’s social sta­tus. Like most mor­tu­ary orna­ments, urns visu­al­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly rep­re­sent­ed the wealth of a fam­i­ly. The more com­plex and var­ied the cloth drap­ing the urn was, the more expen­sive it was to pro­duce, hence express­ing the wealth of the commissioner. 

Documentation of urnes, Sheffield General Cemetery
Doc­u­men­ta­tion of urnes, Sheffield Gen­er­al Cemetery

Glazed porcelain and fritted oxides, in response to draped urns seen in Sheffield General Cemetery.

Glazed porcelain and fritted oxides, in response to draped urns seen in Sheffield General Cemetery

Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery opened in 1836, at the end of the Roman­tic peri­od, which influ­enced its design and the numer­ous sym­bols of cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tions still vis­i­ble with­in its grounds today. The emo­tion­al­ism of the Roman­tics as well as tales of trav­el writ­ten dur­ing this peri­od became an added source of inspi­ra­tion. The work If Only Rome, pic­tured above and below, was devel­oped with this in mind.

If Only Rome, Adorned (2023)
If Only Rome, Adorned — Dig­i­tal col­lage, giclee print on Hah­nemüh­le Matt Fin­eArt cot­ton archival paper, 11.511.5cm

Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery quick­ly became the main bur­ial ground in Vic­to­ri­an Sheffield. The orig­i­nal design of the ceme­tery was inspired by Roman­tic styl­is­tic approach­es and Vic­to­ri­an changes in gar­den and land­scape design. Some of its mor­tu­ary mon­u­ments appro­pri­ate iconog­ra­phy from a vari­ety of coun­tries and cul­tures viewed as exot­ic, most pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mediterranean.

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If Only Rome, in Bronze and Gold, concrete, bronze, ink, pink plastic mesh fabric, plaster, in response to plants collected in Sheffield General Cemetery and tombs

If Only Rome, in Bronze and Gold (2023)

The sculp­ture pic­tured above is made of con­crete, bronze, ink, pink plas­tic mesh fab­ric and plas­ter. It was cre­at­ed in response to open graves seen in Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery, and the shapes of some of its tombs. There is a con­tra­dic­tion inher­ent to the ceme­tery, which lies in the fact that it is both a place for mourn­ing and a place for leisure, viewed and expe­ri­enced by many as a pub­lic gar­den, a park. If Only Rome, in Bronze and Gold taps into this con­tra­dic­tion through its pock­et size and its evo­ca­tion of monumentality. 

Dur­ing our Artist Res­i­den­cy at the ceme­tery, I col­lect­ed plants that had been asso­ci­at­ed with witch­craft. I cast them in bronze and gave them a gold and shiny pati­na as a way to trans­form these com­mon weeds into desir­able objects. In the ceme­tery, it is very vis­i­ble that women were con­sid­ered sec­ond-class cit­i­zens (when con­sid­ered at all). Yet Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery is the rest­ing place of many strong and inspi­ra­tional women, to only cite a few, the Oper­at­ic Singer, Maria Gom­er­sal, the Polit­i­cal Activist, Eliza Rooke, and the Chartist Activist Mary Holberry.

Child’s Bracelet in the Form of a Snake (2023)

Glazed porcelain and fritted oxides, in response to children’s graves and Sheffield General Cemetery’s Egyptian Gate, 8.5 x 8 x 2cm

Child’s Bracelet in the Form of a Snake was cre­at­ed in response to the Vic­to­ri­an mass bur­ial of chil­dren in Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery. The piece, pig­ment­ed as a trop­i­cal snake skin, rep­re­sents a small amulet to for­ev­er pro­tect and com­mem­o­rate the imag­ined per­son to whom the bracelet belonged to. The bracelet re-appro­pri­ates 19th cen­tu­ry Romano- British styl­i­sa­tions that often fea­tured snake heads, a pop­u­lar motif which was asso­ci­at­ed with heal­ing and rebirth. Child’s Bracelet in the Form of a Snake is the first work I made in direct response to a piece cre­at­ed by one of my Heavy Water col­lab­o­ra­tors. It is a nod to Vic­to­ria Lucas’ Self-Destruc­­­tive Acts (2023), a piece in the form of the Ouroboros, which acts as a warn­ing sign of the rebirth of the earth with­out us. Child’s Bracelet in the Form of a Snake, includ­ed in Post­Na­tures at Graves Gallery, is fur­ther echoed in Lucas’ cura­tion of this exhi­bi­tion in which fea­tures the item Bracelet, 200 – 400, a snake bracelet to pro­tect preg­nant women.

Joanna Whittle

Aesculus hippocastanum. Horse Chestnut  tree showing drought stress. Horse chestnuts are non-native trees, but have become naturalised and support many species of wildlife. They are native to the Balkans and came to Britain via Turkey in the late 17th century. 


My peri­od of the research at Sheffield Gen­er­al Ceme­tery coin­cid­ed with a peri­od of research I was under­tak­ing with archae­ol­o­gist Dr Lizzy Craig Atkins, Senior Lec­tur­er in Human Oste­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield as part of Fes­ti­val of the Mind, fund­ed by the uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield. Dur­ing this peri­od l was explor­ing funer­ary prac­tice and the mate­r­i­al cul­ture asso­ci­at­ed with it. I was think­ing about land­scape and the rit­u­al above and below ground and that endur­ing absorben­cy of earth which open and clos­es, engulfs and unearths. The pol­i­tics of above and below ground. Imag­in­ing then a flesh cov­ered hand reach­ing down to touch bones reach­ing out from earth, with a Michelan­ge­lo gap, fin­ger­tip bone reach­ing across cen­turies, to touch the ghoul­ish flesh of the liv­ing. How we dip in and out of the earth and leave our leather and leave our met­al and crum­pled shells. Fold­ing and knot­ting in the con­trac­tu­al pas­sage between realms. 

But I was think­ing too of land­scape and ter­rain and the lay­ers of this in the ceme­tery. Divi­sions and sub­di­vi­sions in the ceme­tery, Arca­dia, cat­a­combs, ter­ri­to­ries, and skir­mish­es beyond this world. Where a riv­er sep­a­rates the liv­ing and the dead. Between remem­ber­ing and memo­r­i­al. Where Here lies’ becomes In mem­o­ry of’ where cloth wraps the dead and pro­tects the liv­ing. Where linen becomes ille­gal. And all around us drought stressed horse chest­nuts pushed into a false autumn.

One of my inter­ests was trac­ing the words on tomb­stones and how they reflect these sub­tle inflec­tions of his­to­ry, from dirt to remembering. 


The Winter of Trouble is Passed, 1860's gravestone inscription 

From Dirt to Remembering

Her favourite words were eter­ni­ty will be too short to utter all his praise.

Who depart­ed his life.

In mem­o­ry of 

Into the val­ley of death rode he too

Affec­tion­ate remembrance

My tears are in thy hand

To the mem­o­ry of

To the beloved mem­o­ry of

Affec­tion­ate remembrance

To the sacred mem­o­ry of 

In affec­tion­ate mem­o­ry of

Who depart­ed this life

What are all my suff’rings here, if Lord, thou count me meet

With that enrap­tured host t’appear and wor­ship at Thy feet?

Passed away

Memorial Ribbon, Hill Stone , glue and oil paint on satin ribbon, 24 x 10cm (detail)

Memorial Ribbon, Draped Stone, glue and oil paint on satin ribbon, 24 x 10cm (detail) 

Memorial Ribbon, Oak Stone, glue and oil paint on satin ribbon, 24 x 10cm (detail)

Immortelle Roses found in crypt survey conducted by By Lauren McIntyre and Linzi Harvey, Department of Archaeology, The University of Sheffield in 2012

Secret Worm

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invis­i­ble worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howl­ing storm: 

Has found out thy bed

Of crim­son joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Brittle Hinge

There are texts you car­ry with you all your life, in a metaphor­i­cal pock­et sag­ging with all it’s weight. These texts, like a metronome, that tick through time. And here emerges Blake again, dust worn, some­where between earth stained immortelle ros­es, brit­tle with their memo­r­i­al and then lay­ered over in dust dry­ness, these horse chest­nut leaves; pulling them­selves into autumn, to pro­tect them­selves. Round it goes, brit­tle and scratch­ing connections.

And anoth­er hinge, where time piv­ots and over­lays. The immortelle ros­es found in the crypt sur­vey, cre­at­ed in acts of memo­r­i­al, once pre­served in absurd­ly frag­ile glass domes brought me to think about the mines depict­ed in war mag­a­zines in Cardiff Spe­cial Col­lec­tions. Their strange blos­som­ing shapes, memo­ri­al­is­ing this one moment of split­ting time. 

And to the same refrain. Oh rose thou art sick 

Memorial Ribbon, Hill Rock (Hunched)


1 Oct 2022

Memorial Ribbon , Oak Stone


1 Oct 2023

Draped Stone, Memorial Ribbon


1 Oct 2023

Funerary Clay Capsule, Rose


1 Sept 2022