Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

One Common Skull – A case study at Old Burying Point, Salem, MA.

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I recently had the pleasure of visiting some of the historic burial grounds in Salem, Massachusetts during my recently holiday to the area. I was particularly excited to visit Salem because it was not only an important site in the history of colonial New England, but it was a part of the survey I did of settlements for my MA research so getting to see it in person was a real treat! I decided to use the opportunity as a case study to investigate a particularly popular gravestone design.
June28_1Pictured above is the historic Old Burying Point, otherwise known as the Charter Street Cemetery. The site is the oldest organized European burial ground in Salem, and was established in 1637 by the Puritan peoples who founded the modern settlement. It was never associated with a meeting house or church, which is typical of an early C17th Puritan settlement.


Here I am with the sign marking the first meeting house location in Salem, erected 1634. Note the lack of graves nearby! Photo by Ian Petty, 2017. 

When we arrived, I had intended to look for hexfoils in order continue my previous train of thought regarding fossilized folk culture in early New England, but I couldn’t find a single one at the Old Burying Point! If anyone knows of any that I missed, please send a photo my way! Also, if you have any hexfoils or similar designs from the Broad Street burial ground, I completely forgot to go there (I’m blaming the heat) and it would be great to see what they have in terms of early stones and protective markers.

What I did notice was something I was also anticipating: That one Death’s Head style! I talked about some examples of the style in a previous post that you can check out HERE if you missed it, so I was eager to find some comparative examples somewhere other than Boston.

Salem did not disappoint!

I was looking for the same death’s head style as was present on the two examples we have here in Newfoundland, the skull with the wedge over the nose and wings in the lunette (high top bump), circular pattern in the finials (smaller side bumps flanking middle), matching flora in the boarders (self-explanatory), and of course the inscription in the middle. There was some variation in styles of course, as I suspect this design was popular and therefore re-produced by many artists as a result. This could also explain why I haven’t been able to track down any carver-
specific information for this particular pattern yet.

What I did find was that this particular design was very popular in the later half of the 18th-century, but didn’t really extend into the 19th century other than one example in the Howard St. Cemetery in Salem from 1802, but that stone didn’t have the floral border to go with the skull.

As you can see from the two examples above, there was some variation in style but the overall design was the same.


This is the earliest example of the style I saw at the Old Burying Point, Salem, MA. It dates to 1727/8. Photo by author, 2017. 

With the two examples from Newfoundland dating to 17[??] and 177[2/9?], it is safe to assume that this design was at the height of its popularity in the latter half of the 18th-century.

Out of the 17 stones I photographed, this was the date breakdown:
– 1727/8
– 1755
– 1760, 1761, 1763, 1763 & 1764, 1674, 1764, 1765
– 1773
– 1780, 1780, 1781, 1781, 1782, 1783
– 1 unknown

I would have made a graph for you, but as this was a preliminary survey of a single site it wouldn’t tell us very much in the long run! Gotta get more data!

What this short study does tell us is that there was a definite trend towards this style of gravestone through a large portion of the 18th-century. While there were many other contemporaneous patterns and variations on patterns throughout the burial ground, this particular design was revisited again and again, likely by different artists who may have only done the imagery and left the text to another carver as was common.

I’m looking forward to investigating this style further in the future, and am happy with the results of this quick preliminary case study in order to come up with a potential date-range that can help narrow down when this style was popular, as well as narrow down potential carvers from the records. It was interesting to see this death’s head style on a 19th-century example as well, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more of the same in the future!

I’d love to hear your feedback on this survey, and if you have any interesting examples to add do send them my way! My fieldwork season is starting on Tuesday of next week, and I look forward to sharing some photos and experiences from the summer with all of you as well.


Just an idea of how many gravestones displayed this pattern at the Old Burying Point, Salem, MA. Photo by author, 2017. 


Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “One Common Skull – A case study at Old Burying Point, Salem, MA.

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

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