Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Imported gravestones from Massachusetts in Atlantic Canada & examples from Cambridge (One common skull, continued)


Previously on this blog I have discussed what I like to call the “one common skull”. It is a death’s head design, a name given to a motif with a central winged skull, sometimes with crossed bones nearby, or an hourglass, or any other mortality symbol really, and was popular through the 17th and 18th centuries on gravestones throughout eastern North America. The use of mortality symbols in the colonial period draws inspiration from the medieval use of these same symbols to remind viewers of their mortality and was popular across many different groups, not because Puritans were particularly morbid.

If you missed the previous posts and want to catch up, you can read about Outsourcing Monuments in Newfoundland or a small case study at the Old Burying Point in Salem, MA by clicking those links. Then come back and join us here!

This style of gravestone is particularly interesting to me because it is everywhere on the Atlantic coast, throughout the colonial period! While mortuary archaeologists and art historians can say that this style, characterized by the central winged skull with a V-shaped nose in the lunette, small finials with a circular design inside, and the same leafy and circular pattern down the borders around the central text, originated in Massachusetts, it seems like we still don’t know who the carver (or school of carvers) was who is responsible. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I do want to take a closer look at the chronology of the style in MA compared to imported varieties in Atlantic Canada.
20181021_123555 (2)
Last week I had the opportunity to visit Halifax, Nova Scotia for the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology (CNEHA)’s 2018 conference. It was an amazing opportunity to visit Halifax (my original hometown!), present my thesis research finally, hear some amazing talks on historical archaeology (#histarch if you’re on the internet), and visit the wonderful Halifax Old Burying Ground!

This site, which I should absolutely do a Curious Canadian Cemeteries post about, was opened as a burial site in 1749, and is an amazing example of an 18th-century burial site with many significant headstone styles. Rising up from Barrington Street, the thousands of graves are stacked several bodies deep, but unfortunately don’t correspond with the head and footstones any longer, as they were rearranged to make space for a lawn mower decades ago (collective groan).

20181021_130551 (2)

John Fergerson Grave, 1753. Halifax Old Burying Ground (photo by author 2018)

Because Halifax was a significant port city through the 18th and 19th centuries, they had access with goods from outside of their immediate area. You maybe have guessed this already, but they imported gravestones…from Massachusetts! There was a huuuge market for gravestone carving in the Massachusetts area, famous for its colonial burial grounds and art. Gravestones with our friendly death’s head style were even shipped to Newfoundland during the mid 18th century (remember that fact, we’ll circle back to it), as well as Nova Scotia and likely other parts of the north Atlantic.

Gravestones with this particular skull style, you might say, could just be using the influence of MA stones…why did they have to be imported? We can actually use the stone itself to answer that! Gravestones that were carved in Halifax were not carved into slate: local sandstone was much more common. However, this slate was a common material in the 17th-18th centuries in MA and vicinity, particularly around Massachusetts Bay area, where it appears that this style of gravestone may have originated.

Lets talk about the skull for a moment. Not to be confused with the ‘soul effigies’ or ‘cherubs’, the death’s head, literally the skull accompanied by either nothing, wings, or crossed bones, is a mortality symbol to remind the viewer of their mortality. The shape in the middle of the face, the weird little separated triangle, is a stylized nasal opening on the skull, which looks a bit like a triangle on a real skull. You can see in the below examples, both from the Halifax Old Burying Ground, triangular noses on skulls in different styles.

Gravestones with skulls often include other mortality symbols as well, such as crossed bones, coffins, and hour glasses. This particular style is also predominantly found with a specific type of border which I mentioned above, sort of a foliage pattern with a circle at the top. Some examples have a vertical bar as the border, allowing the text to extend farther to the edges of the stone, but for the most part, they display the foliage.

Two skull/death’s head patterns appeared in Halifax’s Old Burying Ground, just as they do in sites in New England: one with the floral border, and one without. The date ranges were as follows, with a * indicating which stones had no floral border:

  • 1753, 1757, 1758*, 1759, 1759, 1759
  • 1760, 1761, 1762, 1762, 1764, 1765
  • 1775, 1778*
  • 1781, 1782, 1783
20181021_125757 (2)

Ann Callaghan, 1758. Halifax Old Burying Ground (photo by author, 2018)

In total, 17 imported death’s head gravestones in this Massachusetts style were identified throughout the site, with a handful more being present without a date or having been broken and the date long gone. Last month, while I was in Boston for the Death Salon, I took some time to survey Cambridge’s 1635 Old Burying Ground for distribution of this style of gravestone as well. I surveyed 16 gravestones throughout that site, and the date distribution was as follows:

  • 1689
  • 1727
  • 1751, 1756, 1756, 1758, 1758
  • 1769
  • 1770, 1772, 1772, 1774, 1774, 1775, 1776, 1777

And to revisit Salem’s Old Burying Point (17 stones), founded 1637:

  • 1727/8
  • 1755
  • 1760, 1761, 1763, 1763 & 1764, 1674, 1764, 1765
  • 1773
  • 1780, 1780, 1781, 1781, 1782, 1783
  • 1 unknown

Based on the date distributions between these three sites, I believe it is safe to assume that the outlying 1689 may have been a stone that was back-dated to make a previously unmarked grave, or to replace an older marker, as so far I have not come across strong evidence that this particular gravestone style was popular or widely implemented in the 17th century.

This pattern was clearly popular, as they are seen across Massachusetts burial grounds, up into Nova Scotia, and even into Newfoundland. It will well known that Nova Scotia has a relationship with MA, and after the Halifax Explosion in 1917 the state sent relief to the Canadian city to help rebuild homes for those displaced by the disaster, and provide other aid. Halifax and Boston have had a trade relationship going back to the 18th century, as Boston was interested in the potentials of shipping and fishing in the Maritimes. It short, it isn’t surprising to find 18th-century gravestones from Massachusetts in Halifax!


Graph showing distribution of gravestones the sites surveyed, including data from Newfoundland. R. Lacy 2018.

As you can see from the graph, the distribution of this particular style of winged skull is as popular in Halifax’s Old Burying Ground as it was in the sites surveyed in Cambridge and Salem. It is clear that this style of iconography was popular from the mid-to-late 18th century, and that the style was shipped farther abroad as well, as the data from Newfoundland indicates. It is clear that while the death’s head as a central image on gravestones was visible throughout the colonial period from the 17th century onward, this particular design only really gained traction in the by the 1750s.

What this still doesn’t tell us, however, is which school of carvers is responsible for the design! None of these gravestones appear to have a mark on them indicating a carver, as was the case for most pre-1800s stones, and as I have discussed on this site previously, this style of gravestone is often used as a ‘filler image’ in gravestone art books, indicating it is from X year and Y site, but not indication of who the carver could be. It is always possible that the image was sort of a ‘stock’ skull, used by multiple carvers in the same region, say Massachusetts Bay, when they just needed to make a few headstones quickly…but as always with any good project, this research is ongoing and can be expanded upon!


Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

3 thoughts on “Imported gravestones from Massachusetts in Atlantic Canada & examples from Cambridge (One common skull, continued)

  1. Due to the high levels of exports from America to Europe, sailing ships struggled to load for return trips. I have found ports such as Bristol sent bricks, monuments & stone as ballast. They may have been custom made or on spec with space for infill


    • That’s a really good point, and I need to spend some time doing an inscription script analysis between the sites. I know that Newfoundland, who also imported gravestones from MA, purchases from England and Ireland throughout the C18th as well, and would order the entire, completed stones, inscriptions and all!


  2. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 21, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s