Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


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Cataloguing Funerals & Burials from Samuel Sewall’s 17th-Century Diary

Samuel Sewall (image from the New England Historical Society)

If you’ve been a reader for the last year or two, you’ll know that I’m currently working on my PhD in historical archaeology at Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador! My research is looking at the development of the 17th-century burial landscape in northeast North America, and through the centuries in the outport community of New Perlican, NL. Part of this research involves combing through accounts from the 17th century for details on death, burial, and funeral practices at the time. This information gives us a better idea of how the burial grounds were being used, what people thought of them, and how they changed through the decades and centuries.

Now, I’m only 9 months into my program and have just finished my coursework a few weeks ago, so I don’t have too much of my own research finished yet, but other than lining up some fieldwork and preparing for my comprehensive exams this fall (eep!), I’ve been cataloguing mentions of burials and funerals in the diary of Samual Sewall. Judge Sewall, a public figure and later known for his involvement in the Salem witch trials of May, 1893 (for which he later publicly apologised, so that’s nice), kept a diary of his life fairly regularly from 1674 – 1729, one year before his death. Many Puritans kept detailed diaries and Sewall is no exception. Due to his importance in the community as an educated judge and printer, he was very aware of the community and recorded deaths beyond his own family.

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

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.
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Outsourcing Monuments? – Gravestone carving VS. importation in Newfoundland

20160911_144257In a place often referred to as ‘The Rock’, it sounds a bit redundant to be importing gravestones, but for a period in the 18th-early 19th century, that is exactly what people in Newfoundland were doing. By people, I of course mean people who could afford to have gravestone carved overseas and shipped across the ocean. There are locally carved gravestones as well going back to the 17th-century! I even have a puzzle for all of you gravestone enthusiasts out there, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
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Medieval Graffiti in a (historic) New England Context

That title should also have the word ‘mortuary’ in it somewhere, but you probably guessed that’s where I’m going with this! Today I wanted to talk about above-ground material culture relating to historic burials. More specifically, about the classic gravestones of colonial New England and symbology that appears with some regularity throughout the region that display an iteration of several compass-drawn symbol often found in medieval churches and on items of furniture in the British Isles.

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Ye Antientist Burial Ground’, 1652~, New London, Connecticut. Photo by author, 2015

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