Caleigh Sullivan – The Story Behind the Stone

A cemetery, representing the material culture of death, reflects change in style, ideology, and identity of individuals and of societies.  Researchers perform cemetery analyses to determine spatial organization, questions of religion, class, status, ethnicity, and the rise and fall of stylistic trends on gravestones. Following research by Edwin Dethlefsen and James Deetz (Dethlefsen and Deetz 1966; Deetz 1996), archaeologists have used cemetery studies to test archaeological ideas of seriation. Gravestones are used because they possesses three dimensions – time, form, and space – that can be controlled to test change over time. In class, we studied gravestones at the City of Fredericksburg Cemetery to create our own seriations through the creation of typologies and to observe changes in shape, ideas, and decorations over time.

Noting the characteristics and typologies of the gravestones provided a connection and relationship with the gravestones and the people they represent.  Recording names, birth years, and death years, and other attributes listed on the stone, the basis of their identity can be gathered.  With a name, a cold, inanimate stone now has an essence and a story of a human being connected to it.  From this small look into someone’s personhood, there are reflections of their loved ones’ views or relationship with the person, as well as the state of the deceased found through motifs and epitaphs on gravestones.  Motifs and symbols display imagery on the stone which gives an observer an idea about what must have been important to the person when they were alive.  For example, on the gravestone of William C. Beale, the motif is an urn, a symbol of commemoration (Deetz 1996:99).  An epitaph on a gravestone is an inscribed statement that reveals religious views, class, and status of an individual.  On William C. Beale’s gravestone, the epitaph reads, “Beloved and respected citizen of this place who departed this life April 22, 1850.”  Through this, it is assumed that William C. Beale was a citizen of high class and status, whose fellow citizens, friends, and family held him in high regard.

All archaeological data possess three dimensions: time, form, and space.  In terms of time, the date of death and the date of carving are close in time, reflecting stylistic ideas at the time of the death, providing a good gauge of trends in tombstone shapes and designs during specific time periods.  Using types of tombstones from the City of Fredericksburg Cemetery, examples of seriation are visible between 1810 and the early 2000s.  We used a gravestone shape typology created by a previous MWC Historic Preservation student (Lindtveit 1999).

For our class exercise, we collected data from 160 gravestones, recording information on: stone shape, stone treatment, motifs, epitaphs, other inscriptions (such as “Aged” or the deceased’s relationship to the living), gender, and the presence of footstones. We calculated the popularity of different attributes through time and plotted them. For example, Type 1 tombstones show a decline in popularity.  It starts at 20% from 1810-1849, and goes to 9% from 1850-1879, then to 4% from 1880-1909, and completely disappears after this time period.  Meanwhile, Type 6 gains popularity at the time of the Type 1 decline.  From 1810-1849 at 20%, to 1850-1879 at 5%, to 1880-1909 at 11%, to 1910-1939 at 24%, to 1940-1969 at 4%, to a complete fade out.  Type 7 reflects a true seriation in relation to Type 6 with 0% between 1810-1849, 9% from 1850-1879, 9% from 1880-1909, 11% from 1910-1939, 21% from 1940-1969, to 10% from 1970-1999, to a disappearance after that.  While Type 1 is at a decline, Type 6 begins.  While Type 6 peaks, Type 7 is introduced and gains popularity.  This reflects the popular tombstone types over time.  Here is a picture of this seriation graph made in class:

According to James Deetz in his chapter “Remember Me As I Pass By,” the rise and fall of typology over time reflects the society that produced it.  Earlier versions of tombstones were quite ornate, becoming less elaborate as time passed, expressing society’s ideas of style and material culture change.  Earlier stones have rounded outlines and later stones are more square, as seen in this seriation pattern.  Type 1 is a round-shouldered stone, Type 6 is a reflection of a scroll, transitioning into Type 7, with square edges, showing development or advancement in tombstone production as skills developed, machine use increased, and ideas of style changed over time. Type 3, an obelisk, was popular at the same time as Greek key scrolling motifs carved onto the stones; this could reflect the popularity of the Greek Revival movement and Neoclassism- similar to what is seen in architecture.

Kneeling within the cemetery, closely reading the words etched into the stones, occasionally tracing unclear letters with my fingers or brushing away plant debris, the project gave me an opportunity to interact with artifacts in a new way.  My favorite part of this asignment was figuring out what hard-to-read etchings said.  In choosing gravestones, I wanted to analyze gravestones in as many decades as possible.  I found gravestones starting from 1810 all the way to the 1970s, giving me a more holistic look at changing trends in the material culture of gravestones.

Works Cited:

Deetz, James
1996    In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York, New York.

Dethlefsen, Edwin and James Deetz
1966    Death’s Heads’s, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries. American Antiquity 31(4):502-510

Lindtveit, Emily
1999    A Typology of the Tombstones of the Fredericksburg City Cemetery. Senior Project, Department of Historic Preservation, Mary Washington College. Manuscript on file, Department of Historic Preservation, University of Mary Washington.

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