Massachusetts unique archaeological resource

Cemetery Analysis

Massachusetts has a unique archaeological resource in its many colonial graveyards. These contain a large number of precisely dated artifacts in the form of headstones and provide an opportunity for studies of the ways in which different aspects of British colonial and Euro- American culture have changed over time. For this assignment, you will visit a local cemetery of your choosing and use the headstones and other associated material culture to address questions aimed at understanding demographic, social, symbolic, or technological issues in the past. This assignment does not require any archaeological excavation, and your instructor and federal, state, and local laws expressly forbid you from doing any! The project also does not require you to do any additional background research, although you are welcome to do so. Please respect these cemeteries, the individuals buried therein, and any visitors you may encounter during your study.

You must follow these steps:

1) Choose a graveyard with headstones dating to the 1600s, 1700s, or 1800s. There are several good graveyards in downtown Boston and many more scattered around the city and suburbs. The downtown locations have been studied at length as they are all regularly served by the MBTA. Several locations, such as the Tollgate Cemetery in Forest Hills, is also served by transit and has not been visited by my students in the past. While everyone has their own time pressures, I encourage to think outside the downtown core and visit a site which is not on every tourist route. Be sure to get permission if the graveyard is not regularly open to the public. If you do not know how to find an appropriate cemetery or do not have a neighborhood one that you know about, try using these on-line resources for finding cemeteries in Massachusettss counties:

Massachusetts Cemetery Directory

https://www.mass- Cemetery Records Online Directory of Cemeteries in the United States, Canada, and Australia MA-NDX.html

I Dream of Archaeology: Massachusetts


2) Collect information on at least 35 stones that are close together. Make sure that each stone in your sample records a death before 1900. Be sure that all the stones you select are legible. Do not use widely separated burials plots.

Make a sketch map of the graveyard illustrating the location of the 35 stones you have selected. Label each gravestone clearly and identify any major features such as a church, gate, or pathway. Your map should also denote the outer boundaries of the graveyard.


Then record for each stone the information requested on the attached data table, which is also available as an Excel spreadsheet on Blackboard under Course Materials . Use the sheet as your field data form but be sure to fill in a digital or typed version when submitting the final version of this assignment.

An overview on how to identify the most common type of tombstones, materials, and symbols found on colonial era graveyards in New England has been included with this assignment. Please read it closely along with the article by Edwin Dethlefsen and James Deetz (1966) and David E. Stannards (1979) chapter on death and burial in Puritan New England, which can be found on Blackboard (see Course Materials). Reading these texts is required for the successful completion of this assignment; it is expected that your finished work will use elements of these articles to support your assertions.

4) Use the gravestone data to answer the questions at the end of this handout. Some quantification may be required.

Your final assignment must include:

(a) Typed responses to the questions about your data

(b) The sketch map (include your name, the date drawn, and the name and location of the cemetery)

(c) A typed copy of the data table you completed in the field (d) Photographs, digital photos, or other sketches of the area and headstones (e) Any additional tables used to analyze your findings (optional)


A quick guide to identifying gravestones in colonial period New England cemeteries

For material type

Slate is fine-grained, breaks in flat sheets, and is usually black or grey. Granite is coarse-grained and usually grey, white, or pink many curbstones in the Boston area are made of granite, so look at them for an example. Marble is usually white, but is sometimes pink or black, and often sparkles. Sandstone is grainy and often brown or gray in color.

For design

Standard New England headstone designs include cherubs (angels), winged deaths heads, and .



Figure 1: Death’s Head


Figure 2: Urn & Willow

Other variants and gradations exist such as crosses, hourglasses, hearts, and doves, but these general guidelines will help you describe what you see. You will undoubtedly also encounter inscriptions of various sorts such as poetry, sayings, Bible verses and you can include those in this column or in the Comments section.

For type

You should use codes and terms that follow in your field and data table. Headstones (H) are the flat, usually thin, upright monuments that are very common today and in the past. Common shapes are provided below in an image. Markers (M) are low monuments that can cover entire graves (ledger), be rectangular (flat), have a metal plate (plaque), or be in the shape of a book (book), scroll (scroll) or tree stump (stump). Obelisks (O) are narrow, often with pyramidal tops that look like the Washington Monument in DC or the Egyptian obelisks you may have seen. Pedestals (P) are usually rectangular, boxy, and decorative with panels and sometimes statues on the top. Crosses (C) are obvious, but they may be Celtic, Latin, rustic, etc. Sarcophagus (S) refers to the box-like structures with bodies buried inside, while mausoleum (M) refers to buildings large enough to walk into. Other (O) monuments you might encounter can be described as you see fit, and you can do this in the comments section of the table. Please see the common headstone shapes below:

Professor Nedra Lee

ANTH 107Introduction to Archaeology

Common headstone types



Data analysis questions

1. Identify the name of the graveyard that you visited. In 5 to 7 sentences, briefly summarize the history of the cemetery. Note the years when it was in use and list the names of any notable figures buried in the graveyard. State whether the graveyard is associated with a particular ethnic or racial group or a military, municipal, or religious institution. Describe how the cemetery is currently used.

2. List the three most common types of material or stone used for the grave markers in your sample. Please indicate any evidence of preferred materials changing over time. For example, gravestones of the colonial period are often of slate, whereas nineteenth century markers often use sandstone.

3. Did the graves made of these types of material or stone show any evidence or signs of weathering? If yes, describe the signs of weathering observed (i.e. chipping, flaking, fracturing, the growth of moss or lichen, dissolution of text or actual material).

What types of material or stone showed the greatest evidence of weathering or erosion?

4. What was the most common type of grave marker (i.e. headstone, obelisk, pedestal) represented in your sample? How many markers of this type did you observe? What percentage of the markers you observed were of this type?

5. What was the least common type of marker (i.e. headstone, obelisk, pedestal) represented in your sample of 35 tombstones? Indicate the number and percentage of markers of this type that you observed.

6. What were the oldest and newest grave markers that you recorded?

7. What was the average age of death for the people in your sample? How did this number differ for males and females? How do these numbers differ from the average ages of death by sex


How many childrens headstones did you encounter in your survey of 35 tombstones?

8. Based on the death dates observed in your sample, were certain seasons or years particularly deadly for people? Why do you think this was the case? Can death dates be seen to cluster around events such as the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721 or Boston Cholera outbreak of 1849?

9. How many different symbols did you encounter in your survey of the cemetery? List each type of symbol you observed and indicate the number of times you observed each symbol.

10. Make a timeline that identifies the range of usage for the three most commonly observed symbols in your sample.

What do these symbols suggest about changing attitudes towards death?



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