On an eerie Thursday morning, Dr. McMillan’s class trudged through the still dewy grass, with only clipboards to protect them from the spooky cemetery analysis. Prepared for anything, the students collected data from different gravestones to be analyzed and graphed. Thankfully no ghosts of the townspeople of Fredericksburg past had been spotted, but all our feet did get uncomfortably wet.
It took five class periods in total to complete this in-class project. On days one and two the class collected data from as many gravestones as possible (averaging 20-25 gravestones per student). Students were asked to record names, birth and death years, gender, shape, and treatments of headstones, as well as motifs, epitaphs, and whether they had footstones. We also recorded whether there was a mention of the age of the deceased or if they had a relationship with someone living or dead mentioned was also recorded. While in the field, several patterns began to emerge; gravestones were becoming simpler over time and women were more likely to have a mention of relationship on their headstones. Of course, it is easier to see patterns when all the data are combined.
Day three and four were devoted to cataloging the information that we recorded out in the field. Once all the data were inputted into Excel, we generated percentages for the different categories of information that we recorded. Trends seen in the cemetery were now backed up by actual numbers. Even though individually our sample sizes were small, it was clear that gravestones became more streamlined over time, women were more likely to have mentions of relationships and epitaphs on their headstones and were more likely to have mention of their age as well.
On our last day working on this, the data were pooled together, creating a larger sample size with which to work. Though the trends from the combined data reflected our individual numbers, accuracy was improved by having more information to analyze. Some other patterns that were revealed were that smoother fronts and rusticated sides became very common in the mid-1900s on and that motifs and epitaphs became less frequent over time. These reflect an overall trend in America to move toward simplicity. It is also important to note that cemeteries were once utilized as greenspaces for leisure activities, so gravestones were once multi-purpose: memorializing the dead and decoration to create an attractive park-like atmosphere in an urban setting (Meyer 1992: 261). However, over time this became less popular. This is shown in our data as gravestones became less ornamental; as we move forward through time, gravestone without epitaphs or motifs become increasingly popular. The earliest recorded gravestones (1800-1839) all had epitaphs, which decreases over time to only 8% in the late 1900s. Mentions of Jesus or religious texts also decrease through time, which is correlated with the decrease in religious motifs/imagery; instead, the epitaphs become more personalized focusing on the individual.
Much of these trends were found using seriation, a dating procedure that was originally used in prehistoric archaeology to date ceramics and was developed by James A. Ford (Deetz 1996: 93). Basically, seriation orders the artifacts by time and type, showing how one style will come into and fall out of fashion. Think of it like cell phones: flip-phones come around, and car phones fade away, then smartphones replace flip-phones, and now one model of phone replaces the other and so on. This same method works for gravestones. As one type of gravestone or motif becomes popularized, an earlier style gets replaced. These seriation graphs reflect changing cultural themes in America. Meyer (1992:105), remarks that the gravestones “Take on distinctive flavors relating to regionalism, ethnicity, religious influence, and a whole host of other factors.”
This exercise in cemetery analysis and seriation graphs helped our class to understand how gravestones specifically are connected to other broad themes in American culture and reflect our cultural identity throughout history. Archaeologists use seriation to measure the length of time that certain styles of gravestones were popular as well as how the gravestones reflect the population’s view of the departed. These concepts of popularity can be applied to many facets of archaeology like transfer prints on ceramics and projectile points for Native Indigenous populations.
1996 In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York, NY.
1992 Cemeteries and Gravemarkers: Voices of American Culture. Utah State University Press, Logan.