Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Death & Commemoration at Ferryland – What we know so far.


I did say that my next post was going to be about the Ferryland gravestones, so here we are! Before I can get into the stone analysis bit though, we first need to discuss death at Ferryland.

Ferryland had long been known as a good harbour before the establishment of the 1621 settlement. In fact, there have been Beothuk hearths found at Ferryland, but their relationship (if any) with migratory European fishermen prior to the settlement being founded is unknown. The natural spit that juts out into the water creates a protected harbour, breaking waves and keeping boats sheltered from the harsh Atlantic storms. It was a natural place for people to want to live, and to die.
IMG_4664In 1621, Captain Edward Wynne arrived at Ferryland with a handful of settlers from the British Isles under instruction from George Calvert to begin what he called the ‘Colony of Avalon’. Calvert had obtained the grant to the Avalon Peninsula from Sir. William Vaughan. In the first few years at the settlement, their achieved a great deal, constructing timber and stone buildings, a kitchen garden, a ditch and palisade surrounding the settlement, and a ‘prettie street’. More settlers arrived, and Calvert himself visited in 1627, ultimately deciding to move his family to the Colony.


Fireplace within the Mansion House where Calvert lived at Ferryland. Photo by author, 2016.

The winter of 1628 was especially difficult, and in a letter written by Calvert he stated:  “my howse hath been an hospital all this winter, of 100. persons 50. sick at a tyme, myself being one and nyne or ten of them dyed.” (Calvert 1629 in Cell 1982).

Calvert’s own home at Ferryland doubled as the hospital, as well as a worship space for both Anglican and Catholic settlers. When you stand in front of what is left of the building, you can picture the first Lord Baltimore writing his letter by the light of the fireplace, while his settlers were dying just one floor below beside that same fire. Without any support systems nearby, this must have been a terrifying winter for the population at the Colony.

But what had become of the 9-10 people who died during that difficult winter? This is the min. count for deaths during the Calvert period of course; with minimal records from the early days of Ferryland, his letter is the only documentation which mentions deaths, but it is very likely that a few more people probably died before Kirke arrived.

Well, lets start with what we know.
– The people mentioned (not by name of course) died in the winter. Newfoundland is not a warm place, and digging suitable graves in the winter would not have been feasible, even with metal shovels (which they likely had, because of their lovely forge).


Beach at Ferryland, photo by author, 2016.

– Both the Anglican and Catholic Churches during the 17th century preferred burial in land, as the body was needed for the resurrection. The Catholic church approved burials at sea only in cases where the deceased expired at sea, which was not the case at Ferryland. In addition, if burial at sea were to take place, the bodies would have to be taken far out passed Ferryland Head or else risk them washing back up on the beaches which is not an idea situation for the population or the corpse. Sailing out of the sheltered harbour during a harsh Newfoundland winter is very unsafe, and could not condone a sea burial either, as the Anglican church at the time specified that a sea burial takes place when the ship is at a complete stop. Similar reasoning is shared by Brain (2016) when considering the resting place of George Popham in Maine.
– It’s likely the bodies were kept in an unheated building until the ground was thawed enough to dig graves.
– Two gravestones have been recovered so far, from an early/mid 17th-century context, suggesting the graves were dug earlier, coinciding with 1620s period.

The most likely option, especially with the gravestones being present and very well carved, is that there was a burial ground established at Ferryland. According to my thesis research and statistical analysis of similar sites along the east coast of North America, the most likely location for the burial ground is on an elevated landform within/near the central area of the settlement, with eastern areas being the second most likely (Lacy, in progress). My fieldwork last summer explored areas to the south and the east of the settlement and proved negative for human graves, so this summer I will be exploring a more central and previously unexcavated area!


Broken gravestone from Ferryland. Text is currently unknown (if you have an idea, please contact me). Photo by author, 2017.

The Ferryland Gravestones
It makes a lot of sense that there were gravestones being made at Ferryland. While you don’t see many ‘traditional’ gravestones as we think of them today in early 17th-century British burial grounds (Bartram 1978), the settlers at Ferryland were relatively isolated. Their friends and loved ones had died in a strange, remote place, and perhaps they felt the need to commemorate their graves in a more permanent way than was popular back home. There were slate cutters at the Colony from day 1, and indeed most of the early buildings are at least partially constructed from local slate.

The largest gravestone piece was found in the lower layers of the eastern defensive ditch in a layer dating to the first half of the 17th century, and reads:
The stone potentially belonged to a gentleman by the name of Nicholas Hoskins, as the other recorded Nicholas Hinkson was a carpenter who may not have been able to afford a gravestone (Gaulton 2006: 89). There is also the possibility that the carvers donated the gravestones to commemorate settlers who didn’t make it through the winter.

The smaller gravestone pieces read:
‘ TH[E] ….. / [E/F?]AS[T?] E … / 6 [fleur-de-lis] 2 ‘
Currently we have no idea what it says. In the 17th-century, the name ‘Ester’ was interchangeable with ‘Easter’ and was recorded as being used for all genders, but no one by that name was recorded as being at Ferryland in the early 1600s. As for the numbers, it is likely that they indicate a year, 162_, but until more of the gravestone is recovered (cross your fingers for this summer!) it is just as likely that it is an age, or a day of the month followed by the age of someone in their 20s. These stones were recovered from near the brewery/bakehouse in a soil layer from the first half of the 17th century.


1690 example of ligatures in stylized New England archaic roman, Copp’s Hill, Boston, MA. Photo by author 2016

What really interests me on the gravestone pieces is the script with which the inscriptions themselves are carved! This is really particular and fiddly. The script used on the Ferryland gravestones is classified as archaic roman, and yes, I do mean not to capitalize ‘roman’ in this case. The roman script is classically broken down into archaic and modern (Bartram 1978, Thomson 2009) and I propose that it can be broken down further to include an ‘early’ roman between the archaic and modern periods (Lacy and Freeman, forthcoming). Archaic roman is characterized by bold, capital letters, use of ligatures (see above image), present but not always large serifs, and vertical/horizontal line ratios that are very similar. Roman was, of course, introduced to the British Isles by the Romans in/around 43AD and can be found on Romano-British sculpture during that period before falling out of general use until the major popularization of outdoor funerary monuments after the Reformation years into the 1600s, which is really when we start to see a lot of monuments.


The largest gravestone fragment from Ferryland, complete with beautiful ligatures. Photo by author, 2015

Carvers used template books of popular designs and scripts for many gravestone carvings, and it is likely that the slate carvers at Ferryland were exposed to these lettering templates or had learned from someone who was aware of them back home, as the archaic roman examples from Ferryland fit into the early/mid 17th century when these gravestones were carved. The ligatures, or combined letters, are especially exciting to me! When the script transitioned into early roman around the mid 1700s, the use of ligatures virtually vanishes, so seeing early examples of them being used in a remote area is pretty cool.

So we know the gravestones were carved from local slate, as I mentioned in my last post (Lacy, in progress), and that they were probably carved in the first few years of British and Irish occupation at the Colony, but of course the question is still where did they stand, and why are they smashed?? There are several possibilities for this, but one of the most likely is that Sir. David Kirke and Co. are responsible for their removal and probably destruction.

This summer, I’ll be digging in a central local very close to where the gravestone fragments were recovered in previous years of excavation in my final MA effort to locate where these gravestones came from: the early 17th-century burial ground! I’ll be posting about the excavation a few times a week here on Spade & the Grave, if you’re interested in following along and keeping up to date! Or if you’re in the area, pop on up the shore to Ferryland and visit the Colony of Avalon!


Bartram, A. 1978. Tombstone Lettering in the British Isles. Lund Humphries: London.

Brain, J. P. 2016. Fort St. George II: Additional Archaeological Investigation of the 1607-1608 Popham Colony. Occasional Publications in Main Archaeology, No. 16.

Cell, G. T. (ed). 1982. Newfoundland Discovered: English Attempts at Colonisation 1610-1630. The Hakluyt Society, London, England.

Gaulton, B. 2006. The Archaeology of gentry life in seventeenth-century Ferryland. PhD Thesis, Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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.

Lacy, R.S, and Freeman, A. Forthcoming. Vanishing Characters: charting the erosion of the roman font in North Wales and north-east Ireland.

Thomson, G. 2009. Inscribed in Remembrance; Gravestone lettering: form, function and recording. Wordwell Ltd.: Dublin.

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

8 thoughts on “Death & Commemoration at Ferryland – What we know so far.

  1. Awesome , loved reading this interesting information. Good luck this summer.


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