This post is part of the Further Research series (see here). Research identifying the possible carver of this gravestone was conducted by Alexandra Crowder, a graduate student in the MA program in Historical Archaeology.
During the 2014 excavations on Burial Hill in Plymouth, a fragment of a carved slate gravestone was recovered from the fill layers of EU3, deposits associated with the destruction of stable buildings last owned by Zenas F. Leach, demolished between 1884 and 1885. The fragment was found in context 33, located approximately 77-120 centimeters below the ground surface and on a steeply sloped section of Burial Hill. Context 33 was interpreted as a fill layer of silty sand, and contained historic ceramics, architectural material, and industrial slag. The fragment appears to be gray slate with a green-tinge, and has several hand-carved designs on it. It is approximately 5 cm in length and 2.5 cm in width. The carvings on the stone consist of at least two swirls, two parallel lines forming some sort of border, and an unknown carved decoration. Based on the curved nature of the parallel lines, it is likely that the fragment is from the top, arched portion of a gravestone.
New England is well known for its gravestone designs. Well-documented and widely studied, gravestones in the region are recognized for their changing iconography over time. Studies by scholars have identified three main images present on gravestones: the deaths head, cherub, and willow & urn. The occurrence of these images appear to follow seriation patterns over time, which scholars have linked to changes in religion and attitudes about death (Baugher and Veit 2014: 7-8, Deetz 1996: 93-95). While there is noted variation between different carvers and local aesthetics, the three images were the main source of gravestone iconography (Deetz 1996: 95-96).
Of the 2,269 gravestones on Burial Hill, approximately 1,400 are slate, sandstone, or schist. These stones were the primary materials used for headstones until 1820, when granite and marble became more popular. The slate headstones are especially well documented, and over 950 of them were most likely carved locally. Many can be attributed to a specific carver (Berg and Friedberg 2012: 5, 17). Studies have shown that most New England gravestone carvers worked within small geographic areas and had distinctive styles (Deetz 1996: 91). Plymouth gravestones are well known for a complex stylistic evolution due to the area’s isolation as well as unique derivations of the death’s head motif (Deetz 1996: 108). This evolution is clearly visible in the stones present at Burial Hill and makes associating certain gravestones with specific carvers possible.
Examining different gravestone iconography and carving styles present in Burial Hill and the general region indicates that the gravestone fragment may have been part of a “Medusa”-style carving. A derivation of the death’s head motif, the Medusa motif is known for a face with wild, wavy or curly hair. Developed by Ebenezer Soule, the Medusa style follows its own evolution of imagery over time (Deetz 1996: 111). The gravestone fragment most likely came from an iteration that had curly hair (as opposed to wavy) and a border between the figure and the top of the headstone. According to James Deetz’s sequencing of Plymouth gravestones, this version was one that Soule produced in the early to middle portion of his career (Deetz 1996: 111).
Ebenezer Soule was a well-documented carver from Plympton, MA. Grave carving was often a family business and his five sons are listed as working with him (Eriquez, 2009: 36). Born in 1710, he completed most of his gravestone carvings from 1740-1772. Besides his Medusa style, Soule was known for often using local green slate (Eriquez 2009: 36). The majority of the fully developed Medusa carvings with spiral elements date from the 1750s-1760s (Deetz and Dethlefsen 1994: 35).
If the recovered gravestone fragment was a Medusa figure carved by Ebenezer Soule, it is possible to place a date range on when the original gravestone was sited in the cemetery. Examples of Soule’s gravestones can be seen throughout southeast Massachusetts, primarily in the Cape Cod area. There are at least two examples of Soule’s gravestone carving in the Medusa style present in Plymouth: the headstones of Joshua Bramhall (1763) and Ruth Turner (1755) (American Antiquarian Society). Neither of these two examples exactly match the gravestone fragment, however they show the likelihood that there are more Soule carvings present in the area. The Burial Hill National Register nomination form identifies the Hannah Cooper stone (d. 1763) as a Medusa style stone from the Soule family and the Perez Tilson stone (d. 1767) as a stone carved by Ebenezer Soule Sr. (Berg and Friedberg 2012: 7) The widespread nature of Soule’s work illustrates the extensive trade networks that would have made him successful as a carver and possibly allowed him to carve stones full time, instead of as they were needed.
Determining the motif on the recovered fragment helps situate it in its original context and may assist with determining whom the original stone belonged to in the future, if it is still extant. However, the stone was found a ways away from its original location and buried under several feet of sandy fill. This presents a unique opportunity for the gravestone fragment to not only provide information about the stone it came from, but also explain how it ended up where it was excavated. The sloped nature of the hill may help explain the deposition of the gravestone fragment. If it spalled off or was broken off of one of the tombstones up the hill, then it likely rolled down as the hill was being re-contoured. Its location within a fill layer suggests that it was deposited no earlier than 1884, the last year that the building uncovered in the unit was mentioned in the documentary record. If the fragment did spall off, then it may have been deposited during the winter when water in cracks of the stones would have frozen and expanded, breaking off pieces of the headstones. The alternative, that the piece was broken of instead of spalled off, may have happened during construction activities on the hill.
American Antiquarian Society
2014 The Farber Gravestone Collection.
Baugher, Sherene, and Richard F. Veit
2014 The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Berg, Shary Page, and Betsy Friedberg
2012 Burial Hill National Register Nomination Form. National Park Service, Plymouth.
1996 In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor Books, New York.
Deetz, James, and Edwin Dethlefsen
1994 Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow. In Interpreting Objects and Collections, Susan Pearce, editor, pp. 30-37. Routledge, New York.
2009 Our History In Stone: The New England Cemetery Dictionary. Sinematix, Brookfield.