Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Book Review: Changing Landscapes in Urban British Churchyards.

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This post is a formal review of the newly published ‘Changing Landscapes in Urban British Churchyards’ by S.E. Thornbush and Mary J. Thornbush (2020), for Bentham Science Publishers, Singapore.

While academic and public interest books on burial grounds are often published, they tend to only consider the gravestones, and not the spatiality of the burial ground. This book by Sylvia E. Thornbush and Mary J. Thornbush examines gravestones within multiple east coast cities in England and Scotland, as well as the sites’ locality. However, for a text that is titled ‘changing landscapes’, I was hoping for more of a study of the sites as landscapes and spaces over the gravestones.

The sites focused on in this book are situated close to the coast, as to examine the effects of coastal erosion on headstone legibility and weathering rates, although other sites, such as York, were also selected based on the quantity of gravestones available for examination. The goal of the research was to compare the classic Dethlefsen & Deetz 1966 iconographic study (reprinted: Deetz 1977) to trends in the UK. The authors note that there are linguistic features which marked ‘Puritanism’ used on epitaphs, as well as within the iconography. However the iconography, in particular the ‘Death’s Head’ is still wrongly associated with specifically Puritan beliefs. The main goal of the study is stated as looking for differences in style of headstones in England and Scotland from the C17th-C19th after the Protestant Reformation, and how were they distinct from those found in C19th New England.

The study covered sites in three cities in England (Oxford, York, and Scarborough), and three cities in Scotland (Edinburgh, Dunbar, and Inverness). Primarily situated near the east side of the island, these cities ofter a wide range of surviving headstones for research and cover many cultural, social, and geographic areas. All headstones surveyed were located within 2 miles (3.2 km) of the city centre, which would help to ensure the stones being examined were associated with the urban areas, rather than more rural or country sites, and existed on a ‘transect’, although the transect was not drawn out within any of the figures, something which I, as a reader, would have found helpful for comprehension. They explain that a ‘main or inland’ city, a north/south city, and a coastal city was chosen, to create a wide lens for the research.

Mytum’s classification of gravestones system (2000) was utilised for this study. While the author’s spoke about wanting to create a digital database for gravestones in the UK, it should be noted that Mytum and his team at the University of York and Archaeological Data Services, have been hard at work on this, bringing the ‘Discovering Englands Burial Spaces’ (DEBS) project to fruition, with an updated recording format based on Mytum’s 2000 format. This project, nor the Burial Spaces Research Database, hosted by Archaeological Data Services, have not been mentioned in the book.

The authors’ study on gravestone shape popularity revealed that ‘sinuous top’ (previously called Ogee or Saddle) gravestones were popular in both countries, while ‘triangular top’ (previously called peon or pointed) gravestones were very popular in Scotland. This is interesting, wide-scale survey data, and should be noted for future research as stylistic study on gravestone shape, size, or script often doesn’t cover large regions. However, in Chapter 5, they state that the ‘Death’s head motif [has] a Puritan influence’ (pg 47), and while the image was indeed used by Puritans on mid-late 17th century gravestones, it was not a Puritan symbol (see Baugher and Veit 2014; Hopkins 2014). Death’s heads and other mortality symbols or memento mori were very common through the medieval period, and had nothing to do with Puritanism, but rather a reminder to the viewer of their limited time on earth. ‘As I am now, so shall you be, prepare for death, and follow me’, and other popular epitaphs, along with images of Death, hourglasses, coffins, and other symbols were all to remind the viewer of their own mortality. While Dethlefsen and Deetz’s use of seriation to study gravestone styles temporally at certain sites is helpful in guiding the research, it is not good to continue to perpetuate the idea that the Puritans had claim to the importance of the death’s head as a piece or mortuary symbolism.

Chapter 6 further discusses iconography, associating the change in gravestone iconography with religious influences in Puritan New England, leaning heavily on Dethlefsen and Deetz’s (1966) seriation study as evidence. The authors divide their iconography into three groups, ‘mortality, salvation, and remembrance’, and their study of fonts as two groups, ‘mortality, and salvation/rememberance’, which are more logical ways to view the trends than attributing it all to religious change. The authors discuss how the cherub ‘replaced’ the skull, or death’s head, likely due to an ‘alteration of the perceptions of death from dark to light and decomposition of faith and spirituality’ (pg. 69). They also discuss the use of location-specific motifs, which is invaluable to the study of gravestones throughout any study area.

Overall, this volume is an excellent study of inscription styles, headstone shapes and sizes, and the use of iconography from major and minor centres in England and Scotland. These data will be invaluable for anyone looking to compare gravestone styles through different regions in the UK, on a wide scale or within the individual sites. Information is clearly displayed in tables, and is accessible and easy to read and understand. The unfortunate use of the comparison to the religious meaning leading to the direct change in iconography in New England being attributed to the Puritans on the 17th-19th century takes away from the overall discussion, however. The chapter on inscriptions and fonts (Ch 8) was of particular interest, as there is limited insight beyond the work of George Thompson (2009, among others) and Alan Bartram (1978). The research is summarised by the authors as ‘investigat[ing] the changing designs of historical headstones in urban churchyards and kirkyards within East-Coast Britain’ (pg 117), and they suggest that further headstone studies should expand to the West Coast, including the city of Glasgow, and sites throughout Wales (pg 125). An expansion of this research, as well as making these data accessible via an online database, would be a huge addition to our understanding of the changing landscapes of urban British burial grounds, indeed.


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

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

Deetz, James
1977 In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York.

Dethlefsen, Edwin and James Deetz
1966 Death’s Heads, Cherubs, and Willow Trees: Experimental Archaeology in Colonial Cemeteries. American Antiquity, Vol. 31, No. 4: 502-510.

Hopkins, Caitlin G. D.
2014 The Shadow of Change: Politics and Memory in New England’s Historic Burying Grounds, 1630-1776. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Department of American Studies, Harvard University, Boston. Retrieved from

Mytum, Harold
2000 Recording and Analysing Graveyards. Council for British Archaeology: England.

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

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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