Sticks and Stones

sticks and stonesNow that I have finished creating and presenting (for now) my powerpoint on genetic genealogy I can start reading other materials besides genetics.  I have picked up where I left off on some books and just started reading others.

Sticks and Stones–  Ruth Little has created the first book dedicated to a southeastern state’s panoply of differing styles of gravemarkers through time.  This is the first book I have read on gravemarkers since I read In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz, where he examines the Anglo-American traditions of gravemarkers in New England.  Little begins her book in the Albemarle region of North Carolina where the first Europeans in North Carolina settled.  In many ways their traditions parallels the styles that Deetz recorded in New England but differing in materials and the availability of skilled artisans.  The elites of the area imported their gravemakers from New England and England,  therefore carrying over styles of winged soul heads and death’s heads that  Deetz had recorded and also using imported box tombs and ledgers.  The lower status yeoman farmers used any materials that they could find, which was usually wood, to mark graves.  And this is where the author excels at using materials and stylistic differences in gravemarkers to infer cultural and socio-economic differences in the populations of NC.

From the Coastal Plain Little moves into the Sandhills area where numerous immigrants from the Scottish Highlands settled.  There they used local sandstone and soapstone to create warrior shield shaped markers. The occasional churchyard contains the true holdover from Scotland, the cairn, a neat pile of stones with largest cairns denoting the elites of a community. The Highlanders were usually buried in Presbyterian Churchyards in precise rows, which differs from the irregular arrangement of the Episcopal graves of the Coastal plains.  Their churchyards were also encircled with a field stone wall and an elegant wrought iron gate graced the entrance.

David Jackson Sr.

Scots Irish baroque gravemarker, photo by me

From the Sandhills, Little moves to the Piedmont, an area that was heavily settled by Scots Irish and German settlers.  The Scots Irish Churchyard had many similarities with the Scottish Highlanders: field-stone walls, wrought iron gates and tightly arranged rows, but the iconography was distinctly of lowland Scottish tradition.  The icons are of mortality (hourglass), doves of peace, heraldic symbols, patriotic icons, thistles,  celestial suns, and they occasionally borrowed some of the German neighbors symbols, but the main focus of the Scots Irish stone carver was the “elegant linearity” of their engraving.  The 18th and 19th century gravemarkers were mostly carved into baroque or neo-classical shapes with none of the box tombs and ledgers of the elite of the Coastal Plains.  But they acculturated sooner than their German neighbors and early in the 19th century were importing fashionable marble.  Little also documents some of the early backcountry stone cutting  shops whose work could be seen even beyond the the Piedmont.


God’s Acre, Moravian Cemetery, Winston Salem, NC

The Germans brought their own techniques, lettering (Gothic, Roman), iconography and sometimes language to their gravemarkers.  But the Moravian community of Winston Salem had a truly unique approach to gravemarker that emphasized their egalitarian traditions.  The churchyard, called God’s Acre, is a park-like setting laid out in large squares called a choir.  Married women and widows made up one choir while married men and widowers made up another, single men and boys made another and single women and girls made up yet another.  Each gravestone was flush to the ground and fifteen inches square and the social status was purposefully left out of the marker.


African-American shell grave, Brunswick County. Photo by Michael T. Southern

The last, and I feel most interesting, gravemarker tradition that the author explores is the European and African-American vernacular.  From the Appalachian rough cut field-stone markers on top of rounded hilltops that perhaps recall Native American burial traditions to the unmarked, shell- covered burial mounds of the Coastal Plain, people of little means used what materials they could find.  Sometimes they decorated the graves with the aforementioned seashells, and also other ephemeral items such as eggshells and bric a brac.  The gravesmarkers can be made wood or with concrete and decorated with all manner of symbols, colored glass and pieces of mirrors.  The lettering can be made of metal letters from a hardware store or even grout.  Anything goes in the vernacular tradition and it is not tied to any popular styles or fashions  but exudes originality.

The early gravemarkers show distinctive influences from their home countries and are revealing of socio-economic class.  This eventually gives way to the commercial economy and the mass produced gravestones of the 20th century, but the author notes that there is a rennaissance in grave carving and she hopes that this will a instill a renewed interest in the preservation of historic markers.


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