Reoccurring motifs and decorative elements

Calvary Cemetery is a Roman Catholic cemetery that has provided funerary services for families since 1889. Cemeteries are places where historical archaeology can be seen and used in action, so our class visited Calvary cemetery and collected attributes of over 100 different grave markers. We recorded information about the birth/death dates, grave adornments, the size and shape of the markers, the decorative elements, the associations between single and family plots, and much more.

The frequency of artifact types change through time as a result of new technologies, styles, and available construction materials. Seriation is a relative dating technique used in archaeology to visualize the distribution of a these changes in chronological sequence.

*Click on the images to enlarge

You can see from the graphs above the frequency in reoccurring motifs or decorative elements on the graves in our sample changed through time. The width of the bar indicates a higher proportion. The occurrence seriation chart does not give a visual representation of frequency, but shows a presence/absence visualization. The most dominant symbols are the cross and flower. These decorative elements occur most frequently across all time periods. The celtic cross does not start to appear until the 1980s. It would be interesting to see if there was a large Irish Catholic population and find out how the use of the celtic cross relates to the changing leadership or rules and regulations at Calvary Cemetery.

Technology also plays a key role in what kind of decoration is used on gravestones. With the advent of the CNC machine and more sophisticated CAD software, increasingly elaborate individualistic designs are available and secular scenery such as fishing, trees, and sunburst decorations begin to occur in the 2000s. Hand-carved designs were most likely very expensive and a family in the 1920s, for example, most likely would not enough money for commissioning a hand carved and elaborate design on their loved-ones gravestone.

An Historical Graveyard Survey

Cemeteries provide a unique setting in which to examine social attitudes about death and remembrance over time, which may be tied to larger cultural themes. Over the past week, our class has been doing gravestone surveys at Calvary Cemetery and analyzing data regarding the size and shape of gravestones, their design and the content of their inscriptions.

Here I report on the frequency of internments over time, which I compiled to see if there were particular time periods that saw a rise in deaths. Frequency of internments by year from 1900 to 2016 is shown in the figure below. These include all the data from our class survey – data from 225 individuals and 185 grave markers – which is only a small portion of total internments in the cemetery. Right away I notice that the most burials occurred in the period from about 1920 to 1935, with another significant peak from about 1945 to 1955. After those periods, the number of internments tapered off before increasing a bit again in the past 10 years. Those two periods with the most burials immediately follow the First and Second World Wars, so perhaps these spikes represent the deaths of veterans. Alternatively, the trend could indicate that Seattle’s population grew in the post-war periods such that the cemetery was utilized by more families.

The idea of a growing client population fits in with the other data that I collected about changes in the shape and size of grave markers over time. The figure below shows a seriation of different gravestone shapes in five year increments. The wider the band at a particular year, the more prominent that shape during that period. Note the dominance of blocks after 1930 – these are smaller horizontal slabs that are flush with the grass. Before 1930, columns and crosses are present, which largely disappear after blocks become dominant. Tablets have a surge between 1915 and 1935, but then peter off, and monuments have a low, but consistent presence throughout the sequence. I suggest that those larger upright markers were once indicative of the social class of the deceased, an emphasis on monumentality that has decreased over time. Those markers also take up more space, so as the cemetery grew, people may have been encouraged to use more modest markers. Overall, this fits with my field observations at the cemetery, during which I noticed that the tallest and largest grave markers were concentrated in the oldest parts of the cemetery.