Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Outsourcing Monuments? – Gravestone carving VS. importation in Newfoundland


20160911_144257In a place often referred to as ‘The Rock’, it sounds a bit redundant to be importing gravestones, but for a period in the 18th-early 19th century, that is exactly what people in Newfoundland were doing. By people, I of course mean people who could afford to have gravestone carved overseas and shipped across the ocean. There are locally carved gravestones as well going back to the 17th-century! I even have a puzzle for all of you gravestone enthusiasts out there, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First, let me introduce you to the Ferryland gravestones.
These three fragments of two different gravestones were found broken and out of situ, but in an early/mid 17th-century soil layer at Ferryland. We know they are from the 17th-century as a result, from George Calvert’s period at Ferryland, and we also know that they are made from the same slate that the first permanent British & Irish occupants (1621-1629~) of the site used to make things like slate roof tiles, a construction style which did not continue in the 1638 occupation by Sir. David Kirke.


The Ferryland gravestones. Both appear to have no intentional decoration and display similar archaic roman script. Photo by author, 2017.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Why would settlers on a remote island, concerned with staying alive through long winters with infrequent visits from supply ships want to waste precious cargo space on importing gravestones from the British Isles? They definitely wouldn’t. The Ferryland gravestones are currently the oldest known British (or Irish) gravestones carved in Newfoundland, and are among the oldest in North America.

These stones were not recovered in-situ (unfortunately) and my next post will focus on the Ferryland stones themselves, where they were recovered, and then my research into where the burials themselves may be located (aka my entire thesis research! hurray!). Of course, neither of these stones have enough of a date on them to say when the individuals died, because that would mean this is easy, but using archaeological and geological evidence we have an idea of when they were made and where the stones came from (Lacy, in progress)!


Selection of C18th & 19th gravestones at the Anglican churchyard, Trinity, NL. The stone in the foreground with no decoration dates to 179[?] and is made from imported limestone. Photo by author, 2017.

In the 18th-century however, Newfoundland was linked to the wider world as an economic hub of fishing and commerce, and relied heavily on imported goods. Based on analysis of surviving gravestones, we know that the majority of stones present in major burial sites were imported from western England and southeast Ireland (Pocius 1981).

For the bereaved, the planning, ordering, waiting, and instillation of such a stone would have been a massive undertaking. Perhaps gravestones were ordered long before the death of an individual if they knew their final days were near, or graves may have been marked with a disposable wooden cross or small marker stone until the imported gravestone arrived. It was clearly the fashionable thing to do, especially with a lack of trained stone carvers on the island, but why not order from somewhere closer? Why not somewhere in North America?

This is the question I have for everyone today. What if Newfoundland imported gravestones from somewhere else established (by the British and Irish) in North America? Say maybe…New England?  The imagery we see on Newfoundland stones does not follow the same patterns as New England; while NFLD imported many stones from the British Isles, New England carved their own, creating different traditions. While classic New England designs favoured no decoration or mortality symbols heavily in the 17th-century, we don’t have a collection in NL to compare it to. However, many imported 18th-century stones show that perhaps Newfoundlanders weren’t as fond of memento mori as their neighbours to the south.

With this in mind, imagine my surprise at finding not one, but two gravestone fragments bearing a grinning death’s head!

These two gravestones, from two very different settlements in Newfoundland, have almost identical decoration on along the borders and lunette: a grinning death’s head 20160505_144621with feathered wings and a characteristic triangle over the nose, with circular patterns in both finial and curled foliage down the borders. While there are other instances of memento mori imagery on Newfoundland gravestones, like this amazing stone dated 1788 in Carbonear (imported), it wasn’t a subject that appeared as regularly as it was in other parts of the colonies.

With that in mind, I set out to try and identify the carver of the Stow and Carter stones, realizing that the imagery on these stones was congruent with the stones being imported from the British Isles, but was extremely similar to many gravestones being carved by established carvers in New England. Specifically, the Massachusetts area. A lot of my research centers around looking at early 17th-century British settlements along the east coast on North America, and as a result I have spent a long time sitting in burial grounds staring at graves. These stones were familiar…

As you can see from these examples, there is a definitely chance that the Stow and Carter gravestones in Newfoundland were carved in the Massachusetts area and shipped to Newfoundland. Similar carvings styles to these can be seen in burial grounds in Halifax, Nova Scotia as well. I have not looked into their local vs. imported gravestones yet, however.

Unfortunately I have been unable to track down a carver or carvers that can be identified as producing this design, but due to the sheer volume of this style of gravestone in Boston alone, I suspect that they likely worked within the area, and potentially shipped gravestones up to Canada and Newfoundland in the 18th-century. Because this design is so ubiquitous with New England gravestones, images of the design are often used as ‘filler’ in books on the subject and I have not been able to find a name(s) associated with them yet. If anyone has any additional information on who produced stones like this, I would love to know about it! Perhaps the carver was from Nova Scotia and was imitating gravestones in Boston? I’m currently at a dead-end (hah), but will continue to investigate further.

Lacy, R.S. In Progress. Here lieth interr’d: An Examination of 17th-century British burial landscapes in eastern North America. Masters Thesis. Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Pocius, G. L. 1981. Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Newfoundland Gravestones: Self-Sufficiency, Economic Specialization, and the Creation of Artifacts. Material Culture Review. Volume 12 (Spring): 1-16.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

7 thoughts on “Outsourcing Monuments? – Gravestone carving VS. importation in Newfoundland

  1. Interesting topic! Any chance that XRF could help source the quarries?


    • Yes, definitely! If I had my own pXRF machine it would be pretty simple, but require a lot of sampling and processing…and travelling to New England with the machine as well~

      I recently conducted XRF analysis on the Ferryland gravestone fragments and the data will be presented in my forthcoming thesis. The quarries themselves were identified prior to my own project by Dr. Barry Gaulton, see reference if you are interested on reading more about the site’s quarries.

      Gaulton, B. 1997. Seventeenth-Century Stone Construction at Ferryland, Newfoundland (Area C). Master of Arts thesis. Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland. St. John’s, Newfoundland.


  2. Pingback: One Common Skull – A case study at Old Burying Point, Salem, MA. | Spade & the Grave

  3. Pingback: Imported gravestones from Massachusetts in Atlantic Canada & examples from Cambridge (One common skull, continued) | Spade & the Grave

  4. Pingback: Curious Canadian Cemeteries: South side / Old Non-Denominational Burial Ground, Ferryland, Newfoundland. | Spade & the Grave

  5. I like how you mentioned that If someone knew their last days were approaching, gravestones were ordered well in advance of their passing. As my grandfather is about to pass away, I’ll make sure to locate a company in the area that can design a headstone monument in his honor. Thank you for the tips on your article!


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