Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Evolution of roman lettering in Newfoundland: A case study at Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery, St. John’s, Newfoundland

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Today’s post is based on ongoing research that started as a prompt for a term paper in grad school. I’ve been conducting research on roman lettering development on upright gravestones for some time (there is a paper on the way, I swear. It’s bogged down in reviewer/edits land but it will be out there eventually!), and this research was based on my interest in the development of lettering styles on gravestones. More specifically, the development of lettering styles carved in a ‘remote’ area, that might not have access to lettering books or script trends as carvers in more urban centres in the British Isles were. Lets delve in, shall we?


St. John’s Harbour (photo by author 2016)

Wooden structures overlooking St. John’s harbour were pulled down by flames in 1892, the casualties of the Great Fire. Homes, businesses, and religious sites were damaged or destroyed putting a pause on the economy of the city as it struggled to recover. As the landscape of the living rebuilt, the city’s deathscape remained poised amidst the destruction. High on the hills overlooking the downtown core, Belvedere Roman Catholic (RC) Cemetery was spared the destruction it may have otherwise seen. The cemetery, founded in the early 19th century, witnessed times of change in Newfoundland gravestone traditions as a rise in local skilled carvers emerged out of St. John’s in the 1830s.

As many of you probably know, I did my Masters degree at Memorial University of Newfoundland. I loved living in St. John’s, exploring the coastline, and getting involved with historic cemetery work in and around the area. This particular research project was thought up because of a prompt in class, as well as my work with the Ferryland Gravestones (which I’ve written about many times on this site). Because I’m hell-bent on looking at gravestone lettering characteristics even if no one is interested in reading them, I measured the letters on the 17th-century gravestones from Ferryland, carefully recording, to fractions of millimeters, the width of vertical and horizontal lines, and serifs. I kept that data to myself for a bit, and then decided to expand the study a little.

Gravestone carving has a long tradition in Newfoundland. While Pocius (1975, 1981) puts forward the idea that prior to 1830 there were no gravestones carved locally on the Avalon Peninsula, my research (Lacy et al 2018) has shown that the earliest gravestones carved on the island date to the early 17th century. However, this was not so much of a gravestone carving tradition as carving because there was no other option and in the 18th century it became very popular to import gravestones already carved from Ireland and England.

Within Belvedere RC Cemetery, several carvers were noted whose names appear from the late 18th and into the 19th century as stone workers and carvers; J. Hayes (alt. Hay/s), MacKim, and A. Smith. The first gravestone carver to import white marble to Newfoundland was Alexander Smith, and his work can be found in many regions of the Avalon (Pocius 1981: 10). Within the Belvedere Cemetery, there were a great deal of gravestones carved by the same artists, showing interest in locally produced memorials and the importance of having commodities, even in death, available close to home.

Roman lettering is of particular interest to me, due to its longstanding history in the British Isles and subsequent introduction to North America as a result of European immigrants. (I am purposefully not capitalizing the name of the lettering style, as not to be confused with ‘Roman’ as in the people/empire). In fact, roman lettering was the most commonly used style, occurring on 99.6% of all memorials in Ireland (Thomson 2009a:55), and being transported to the ‘New World’ on imported gravestones…and with imported carvers. In a previous research project, I conducted a study of the erosion patterns created by roman lettering in Wales and Ireland between 1600 and 1900 in order to investigate the development of the style across 300~ years and create a relative dating technique based on the patterns created by the eroded letters (Lacy and Freeman forthcoming). I was interested in looking more closely at the lettering within the 1800s in Newfoundland, in order to see if the difference between the horizontal to vertical line widths continued to grow within what is considered the ‘modern’ roman lettering , as it did from archaic, to early, to modern roman (Bartram 1978, Thomson 2006, 2009a, 2009b, Lacy and Freeman forthcoming).

Archaic roman displays similarly weighted lines; this means that the vertical and horizontal lines of every letter are nearly the same width, and are also cut to the same depth, resulting in a heavy-set letter which erodes relatively evenly. This style also features primarily capital letters. Early roman, a transitional phase in the lettering can be seen emerging around the early/mid-1700s in northern Wales and Ireland (Lacy and Freeman forthcoming), and is signified by a slightly thinner horizontal line, vertical lines still thicker by comparison but can be slight in some cases, and the introduction of lowercase letters to inscribed stone. In the early-mid-19th century we see a shift to a more developed script, deemed ‘modern’ roman (Thomas 2009b), with deeply incised, wide vertical lines contrasting with shallow and thin horizontals. The form, aside from being the familiar version from a contemporary standpoint, creates an issue for archaeologists and other researchers attempting to read partially eroded inscriptions in that the shallow horizontal lines erode faster and create a series of vertical bars, unfamiliar code to people trying to read an ancestor’s grave.

The Site & Methodology

Belvedere RC Cemetery Map

Belvedere RC Cemetery Map, Craig Peterman 2011. Blue indicates older portions of the cemetery. Added red box indicates oldest portions of cemetery, where samples were selected based on appropriate dates and presence of the roman script.

The Belvedere RC Cemetery was selected as the research area for this project due to its central location within the city of St. John’s, its Catholic memorials allowing me to look at religious iconography in a Newfoundland settling, and its wide date rage. The cemetery is located between Bonaventure and Newtown Road, St. John’s, and was opened in 1810, making it one of the oldest still-standing cemeteries in the city (NGB 2016, Jeans ND). The stones surveyed for this research were selected from the oldest sections of the cemetery, indicated on the Newfoundland Grand Banks website with a colour-coded map and database of information off the gravestones. The stones selected for the survey were chosen for the presence of roman lettering and the dates on the stones being within the survey years; the iconography, material type, and shape were not factored in to the selection. Only stones with roman lettering from the 1840’s to the 1880’s were used. An attempt was made to obtain equal numbers of stones for each decade. The sample size was limited due to time constraints and in some cases, availability of gravestones in the required decade. In total, thirty-three stones were randomly selected for measurement.

Data measurement occurred over two days in February and one day in March of 2016 (I said I did this research a while ago right?). Vertical and horizontal line widths were measured using digital calipers which were set to zero after every measurement to ensure that the readings were as accurate as possible. On each gravestone, one to two lines of text were measured, and an effort was made to record the same words or lines on each stone when possible. This was made possible by the frequency of similar statements in the epitaphs; ‘Sacred to the Memory of’, ‘In Memory of’, ‘Erected in/to the Memory of’, or ‘Erected By [name]’ were all very popular epitaph opening lines in the 19th century (Shimabuku and Hall 1981) and so allowed for similar sets of letters to be measured between gravestones. Due to the nature of modern roman, with wide and deeply incised vertical lines and thin, shallow horizontal lines, eroding (and vanishing) at different rates it was not possible to get both a vertical and horizontal measurement from every letter. Roman lettering , coupled with the popularity of marble as a material for gravestones in the 19th century in Newfoundland and the wider Atlantic world (Trask 1978, Blachowicz 2006, Baugher and Veit 2014: 137), made it difficult to get a measurement that would be accurate from every horizontal line present; due to the granular nature of marble and its fast rates of erosion, thin lines, shallow lines don’t always preserve well. Because of this, a letter by letter comparison would have been impossible. Instead, for each stone, the mean of the vertical widths and the mean of the horizontal widths were calculated and a ‘font ratio’ obtained (ratio of horizontal to vertical widths).  Older inscriptions should have a ratio closer to 1, with the ratio decreasing as the font changes over time.  A scatter plot showing ratio vs decade was created in order to visualize the results and analysis of variance (ANOVA) will be used to test whether there is any difference between the mean ratios for the five decades. As well, a small sample of lettering from Ferryland (earliest example of roman lettering in Newfoundland) will be compared to the Belvedere stones using a t-test to determine if there is any difference in the font ratios between the centuries.

Results and Discussion
By examining the compiled iconographic data in conjunction with knowledge of local stone carvers, we begin to gain a picture of the developing Newfoundland carving traditions in 19th century St. John’s. Figure 2 shows a map of the cemetery as presented on the Newfoundland Grand Banks web page for the Belvedere cemetery, with an added red box indicating the portions of the cemetery which were selected for this research project, based on oldest headstones present.

The survey was limited by sample size, but showed some interesting trends in popular gravestone shapes, materials, and iconography across the samples. As described by Pocius (1975, 1981), marble was the most prominently displayed material in the cemetery, accounting for 60.6% of the surveyed stones. The other stones in this survey were all comprised of a limestone-like material, often covered in a thin layer of white or green lichen growth, both obscuring and protecting the letters. Almost all of the gravestones were simple, with two or fewer elements and a simple shape, with a few being considered complex with several materials, railings, or complex shapes. Gravestones marked as complex in the catalogue were recorded as such due to the presence of railings or fencing around the graves, or were comprised of several materials.


Simple gravestone, Belvedere Cemetery (photo by author 2016)

The shapes of the simple gravestones were repeated throughout the cemetery, and across the time period being focused on in this study. The shapes will be classified based on the system developed by Mytum (2000) and adapted for use in Sayer’s (2011) study of Dissenter gravestones in the United Kingdom, describing the stones from simple to complex based on the number of stylistic ‘elements’ and complexity of the shape and use of material. By investigating these attributes and comparing them to popular trends in contemporaneous Catholic gravestones we will be able to speak to the development of, or lack of, isolated trends forming in the Newfoundland burial landscape. This variation in dates could be the result of stones being backdated, something which occurred with relative frequency in east coast settlements (Slater 1987), however stones were usually only backdated by a few years, and so investigating gravestones based on decades allows for this potential variability. The most popular gravestone shape (see marble ‘scroll-top’ gravestone earlier in this post) was carved by multiple artists, and contained scrolls at the top, flanking an image containing religious iconography in the middle, carved from marble in all gravestones recorded for this survey, as well as others observed during the fieldwork which were not recorded due to the lack of the roman script.

The most popular gravestone shapes were carved by multiple artists, and contained scrolls at the top, flanking an image containing religious iconography in the middle, carved from marble in all gravestones recorded for this survey, as well as others observed during the fieldwork which were not recorded due to the lack of roman lettering. Other common shapes included stones with arches, rounded tops, or square gravestones. Similar shapes are often present in Ireland, however these stones often have a rounded top and cut-out shoulders, and have no scrolls or similar flourishes present. Other styles of gravestones present are pretty widely distributed along the eastern seaboard, and have also been seen in the UK and Ireland (see below).

Table 1 shows the ratios by decade, including the small dataset from the Ferryland samples. A one-way analysis of variance using decades 1840-1880 in Excel yielded a p-value of 0.48 which is not significant. Thus, changes in the font ratio were not evident over this short time span. Comparing the Ferryland gravestones to the Belvedere stones, a two-sample t-test in Excel assuming unequal variances of the ratios gave a p-value of 0.008. This is highly significant and thus there is a difference in the ratios between the centuries (higher for the early time period). Caution should be used when interpreting the results as the sample sizes are quite small.


Table 1: Ratios for each gravestone recorded, per decade as is presented in the graphs.

The graphs below illustrates the comparison between the Ferryland and Belvedere data. Although the analysis between the gravestone fragments from Ferryland only had 3 samples vs the 33 taken at Belvedere RC Cemetery it is clear that over all, there exists a significant statistical difference when comparing centuries of change as opposed to decades. This indicates that the issue was not the theory itself but rather the timescale being investigated. By the 1800s roman lettering was already well established in the form of ‘modern roman’, and as the statistical analysis has shown, plateaued in its development with no statistically significant difference between the decades. Looking at the data in the form of a scatter graph (Figure 7), it is evident than in the 1840s and 1850s the letter proportions were fairly regular and appear to be following the assumed trend, yet the 1860s and 1870s show vast variability throughout the samples. The data collected from the 1880s is the most uniform of all the decades, yet displays ratios similar to 40 years prior, which was something I was not anticipating. It is likely that these results show that the script development had plateaued in the 1800s, but this survey could also reflect other factors: material, erosion, and artistic preference.

While the majority of the gravestones surveyed were made from imported white marble, the rest were carved from a compact stone with minimal inclusions, with small grain size and superior durability when compared to marble. Marble, the product of metamorphosis on limestone, is very granular with large grains. The material weathers quickly and the weathered surface resembles large-grained sand paper, greatly affecting the preservation of inscribed lettering on marble gravestones. It allows the letters to round on the edges quickly, while the limestone-like material weathers slowly, keeping the sharp edges originally carved. This likely influenced some of the measurements taken for this survey, as I was unable to take measurements from lettering where I was unable to determine the original widths of the horizontal lines due to their shallow nature. The other erosion issue is that the samples from the 1880s are, of course, not as old as the examples from the 1840s and thus have had less exposure to weathering. This is likely a factor in why the horizontal lines from the 1880s were wider, they simply hadn’t worn down, and as hand-carved inscribed lettering is V shaped as opposed to U shaped as later machine cut letters are, the less weathered a stone is the wider the small lines are likely to be. When the large portions of letters begin to round due to weathering it is easy to see where the original edge was, but this is very difficult to do with a shallow line which was only 1 or 2 mm to begin with.

The other aspect that could have affected the results of this survey is the variation of artistic preference. Since gravestone lettering was once all cut by hand, the likelihood of variation in lettering is very high. The proportions I am looking at on a larger scale are present because people imitated what they saw others doing in terms of lettering, and so we see a gradual trend towards wider verticals and thin horizontals in roman lettering over hundreds of years. It is not surprising that this trend isn’t visible statistically between several decades, but the variability in artistic expression and interpretation of the script is. There is the potential that the increase in horizontal width in the 1880s could represent a regional stylistic trend, but this would require a larger study to investigate.


This research investigated the representation of gravestone styles within the reasonably isolated city of St. John’s. The samples were chosen at random from the oldest portions of the cemetery based on the presence of roman lettering , the most widely utilized style on inscribed gravestones and other memorial sculpture within the British Isles, and as a result the lettering is very prevalent in North America as well. While some styles of gravestones appear to have been popular across the Atlantic world, the scroll-topped style which was utilized by both Alexander Smith and J. Hay may represent a regional trend in gravestone shape preference. Popular monument shapes are similar / identical to examples found in the British Isles, showing that even through St. John’s had developed a local gravestone-carving culture in the 1800s, there was still heavy influence on people’s preferences and designs from the previous century of importation of gravestones.

An analysis of variance on the font ratios revealed that there was no statistical difference (p=0.48) in the ratios of horizontal to vertical widths of letters between the decades of 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. Perhaps this 50 year time span is simply not long enough to see any changes in the font. Indeed, when compared with the small sample of measurements from the 17th-century Ferryland gravestone fragments, there is a significant different (p=0.008) between the mean ratios, with the Ferryland data having a much higher ratio. Thus, although there was no decline evident in the font ratio from the 1840’s to 1880’s, it would seem that insight into the development of the roman font in Newfoundland could be investigated by examining gravestones over a much longer time span.



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Baugher, S. and Veit, R. F. 2014. The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

Blachowicz, J. 2006. from Slate to Marble: Gravestone Carving Traditions in Eastern Massachusetts, 1770-1870. Graver Press: Evanston, Illinois.

Debbie Jeans, Genealogist. Information on St. John’s cemeteries. ND. Available from:  [20 February 2016].

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

Lacy, Robyn S., Gaulton, Barry C., and Stephen J. Piercey. 2018. Inscriptions, Outcrops, and XRF: Analysis of the Ferryland Gravestones. North Atlantic Archaeology Journal, Volume 5, 2018. Pg. 91 – 110.

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Thomson, G. (2009a). Lettering on Irish Gravemarkers: Monaghan and Beyond. Inscribed Histories. 49-62. Monaghan County Council Heritage Office: Ireland.

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Trask, D. 1978. Life how short Eternity how long: Gravestone Carvings and Carvers in Nova Scotia, An Illustrated Study. The Nova Scotia Museum: Halifax.

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Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

One thought on “Evolution of roman lettering in Newfoundland: A case study at Belvedere Roman Catholic Cemetery, St. John’s, Newfoundland

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of March 10, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

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