Old Burial Ground, Cambridge, MA

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Cambridge (our fair city), Massachusetts for about 36 hours. Despite it being a very quick trip, I had about three hours that were unoccupied when I got there, and since I hadn’t actually been on that side of the Charles River since January of 2012, I decided that getting out to see as many cool historic places as I could was more important than resting. I walked a circuitous path within a two mile radius of Harvard Square, seeing many amazing places from my shortlist (like Historic New England’s ca. 1682 Cooper-Frost House) and even more places that happened to cross my path in between my intended points.

Near the top of my list was the Old Burying Ground, adjacent to the ca. 1760 Christ Church and 1833 First Church Unitarian / Universalist Church (original meeting house constructed from 1633-1636). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many seventeenth-century gravestones in the same cemetery before, even in Boston and Salem. (Editor’s note: I’m sure that it’s quite possible that I have actually been in cemeteries that have more seventeenth-century burials as this one, but I certainly didn’t see them if that is the case.) I fully expected to see a lot of eighteenth-century ‘stones, but I guess I just assumed that there wouldn’t be many (if any) from before the church was founded.

(Maybe because I hadn’t seen or read this sign before I went into the Burying Ground!)

I’ve been fascinated with old cemeteries for some time now, and became even more fascinated with them during graduate school in some historical archeology classes that I took as electives. I’ve always thought that customs around death and dying in a culture is a fascinating window to view a culture through, generally, so old cemeteries and gravestones are a natural, physically and space-adjacent manifestation of that. Anyway, in a graduate school course reading I came across a slightly different version of the following graphic, which blew my mind. Someone had actually gone out and collected data from this historic, New England cemetery, and then plotted out battleship curves to show how three different primary styles of gravestone ornamentation had waxed and waned in popularity over 100 years. That was (and is) so cool!

“Death’s Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow” By James Deetz and Edwin S. Dethlefsen. Originally published in Natural History Vol. 76(3) 1967, pp. 29-37. Via the Plymouth Colony Archive Project (http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/deathsheadfg1.html).

Since then I’ve made it my business (or, perhaps more literally, my recreational pleasure) to photograph as many older gravestones as I can find, wherever I go. The death’s head motif, in particular, has always completely entranced me. However, rarely do I get to do a more complete inventory of any given cemetery, as most of my travel tends to be work-related, so I don’t have an incredible amount of time to spend on my recreational gravestone obsession. But on my recent trip to Cambridge, I found myself with nowhere to be for several hours, and this incredible old cemetery surrounding me, so I went a little deeper in my documentation. Please do note, I still didn’t even come close to recording every gravestone in the cemetery, but I did photograph about forty unique ones (and oh man, my quads were really thrilled about it, as for each of those gravestones I had to squat down low to get a clean shot, and then several detail shots for most of them).

Of the gravestones that I documented, the oldest was from 1676—belonging to a John Poulter, who died at 41—and the most recent was from 1846—belonging to an Eliza Brackett, who died at 32.

In memory of ELIZA wife of the late JOHN BRACKETT, who died February 23, 1846, aged 32 years.

As you can see from the images, these gravestones are noticably different. One is much more stark, with no decoration other than the inscription, while the other has heavy, almost chunky, symmetrical ornamentation on the sides and top. The inscription, also, is noticeably more typographical and refined in the later gravestone: Mixed cases! Thick ascenders with thin bars! Ball terminals! But, lovely typography aside, my true passion is for the older, more ornate gravestones, like Mr. Poulter’s up there.

Eagle-eyed readers may have already caught this, but the main decorative element of that gravestone is called a “death’s head.” If you know me at all, you’ve probably heard me talk about death’s heads forever, but for anyone who hasn’t had that misfortune, they were a very common decorative element on early American gravestones. It’s a grim image, with a old, spooky vibe to us in the 21st century. But to the people who lived in Cambridge and other parts of New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, these death’s heads were much more than that. They were, of course, reminders of death. They showed viewers the very face of death. But they also were a small beacon of hope. Carving the intricate designs in these stones would have been no small feat, and with all of the hard work that went into just eking out a living—growing food, keeping your shelter in good repair, hunting, sharpening and repairing your tools, tending livestock, mending and making clothing and shoes, etc.—carving anything more than a name and date into these pieces of stone was done for a reason. It was hard work, but it was done anyway. It mattered to these people.

So what’s hopeful about a toothy skull with wings sticking out of it like a terrifying rendition of a golden snitch, you may ask? My inner art historian’s reading is that the death’s head is a two sides of the same coin: the grim reality of death, symbolized by the skull; the hopefulness of a rewarding afterlife, symbolized by the wings. While there’s really no way to prove this interpretation, others have speculated similarly, so I feel pretty good about it.

Another, non-mutually-exclusive interpretation, is that the wings are a representation of life, specifically the fleeting nature of it. In fact, in many gravestones, this interpretation is emphasized by additional text or symbology. For example, in Mr. Poulter’s gravestone, if you look closely below the tympanum (that’s the large rounded center part on top of the main rectangular body; the two smaller rounded parts on the sides are called “shoulders”), right under the death’s head’s chin, you can see an hourglass. Again this is paired with a more visceral reminder of our mortality—some long-bones.

The secondary iconography: Bones and an hourglass.

The subtext of this time-related iconography is also frequently brought into text with the Latin inscription, “Fugit Hora” (“time flies” or literally, “the hour flies“).

The engraving is a little worn away on this gravestone (Thomas Foster, d. 1679) but if you look closely, directly below the wings of the death’s head, you can see FUGIT HORA written, one word on either side of the hourglass, with some crossed long-bones, and a coffin, for good measure.

Another common Latin inscription, often paired with Fugit Hora, and perhaps more well known, is “Memento Mori,” or “remember death.” Those two phrases, and their presence together on many headstones from this period, hammer home the juxtaposition between life and death that these early colonists were depicting through their iconography. Death was very real, and very present in their lives. They couldn’t hide from death, and they didn’t try to. They almost certainly feared death, just as we do today, but it was just so much more common in their lives that their relationship to it was fundamentally different. As such, in their funerary practices they wanted to look death almost-literally right in the face, in order to celebrate and be thankful for what time they were given. And I find that fascinating.

In that spirit, I spent some time shooting as many older-looking gravestones as I could with the limited free-time I had in Cambridge, and created a gallery and small spreadsheet with the names, dates, and photo IDs for each one for your perusal. My dream would be to take a day or so and actually do them all, to complete the records for this cemetery at Find A Grave (which is a great website for finding a specific grave, or browsing through known burials in lots of cemeteries). Anyway, feel free to browse through, and look for the progression from death’s heads to cherubs, and take some time to admire the intricate floral motifs and other symbolism on some of these guys. I hope it’s interesting, helpful, or both!

Deacon John Cooper, d. 1691

Texture, Color, and Coincidental Design Symmetry

Sometimes even places you pass by every day can all of a sudden look different to you if you keep your eyes open. That happened to me the other day when I glanced two great buildings—Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church (619 10th St NW) and The Woodward & Lothrop Building (10th, 11th, F, and G Streets NW)—that I usually only look at separately, in the same visual frame. While incredibly different in terms of use, style, and form, the visual symmetry of the rose window on the church and the rosettes in the elaborate pilasters of the W&L building struck me, and as I paused to enjoy the juxtaposition, I noticed the rich color of the church’s masonry and how it visually complemented the richly painted details at W&L. Anyway, all that is to say that I thought it was quite stunning, and wished I had a better camera with me, but I didn’t so here is an iPhone shot that I hope conveys what I’m talking about. Enjoy!

Click for the full-resolution image.

Happy Back to the Future (Part 2) Day!

Early fan-art by the author. As true today as it was in 1991!

Well folks, as of 4:29PM (Pacific!) today, every moment of the Back to the Future trilogy is officially set in our past. The franchise is a huge cultural milestone, particularly for anyone born circa 1980 or after. Was it because of the incredible, DeLorean-based time machine? Michael J. Fox’s oozing coolness? The nearly perfect screenplay and performances of the first film? The adrenaline-inducing score by Alan Silvestri? Maybe, maybe. But maybe part of the film’s lasting appeal has to do with something deeper. Maybe it’s because deep down, we all like the idea of being able to go back and see what our hometowns were like 30 or 100 years ago. Maybe we all want to see what it would have been like to interact with our parents or great-great-grand parents in the same place where we currently live. Not to mention being able to see other places the way they were before our time. Maybe it’s because a tangible link to the past is such a powerful, human thing, that’s hard to quantify but there all the same. Look, I’m not saying that Back to the Future is secretly a propaganda film for cultural resource management and preservation, but I will let the Hill Valley Telegraph / Hill Valley Preservation Society heavily imply that for me.

clocktower Marty even contributed to the cause! And he’s the coolest! We might not all get the chance to travel back in time in Doctor Emmet L. Brown’s DeLorean time machine, but we can all work together to preserve our past and keep that link alive.

Fact: Getting involved in preservation and placemaking is as cool as denim jackets, skateboarding, and DeLoreans.


I love maps. One of my favorite parts of graduate school was the amount of time that I got to spend interacting with maps of all kinds. From little old hand-drawn 18th century maps, to huge interactive digital maps and everything in between. One of the most interesting kinds of maps to me was the USGS Quadrangle Map. These maps, which go back through time for decades, are remarkably detailed, and cover the entire country, showing roads, topography, and some structures. They’re really great, and you can download high-quality PDFs of them, for free, (or buy large prints for much less than it would cost you to print them yourself unless you own a plotter) from USGS’s Map Locator & Downloader, because they’re a wonderful agency.

Anyway, I recently saw a lovely print in a colleague’s office that I immediately recognized as a USGS Quad Map of a portion of northwest Washington, D.C., but it had been changed to a pure black and white, and inverted so that the background was dark and the lines were white. It was great! However, it wasn’t the whole city. As such, I decided to spend an hour or so downloading all four quad maps, stylizing them, and then combining them to make a map that showed the whole District, as a tribute to my beloved hometown. I think they’re pretty neat, and I didn’t have anything else to blog about this week, so since they’re based on historic maps (1957 if I recall correctly), I thought I’d share some reduced-size versions of the finished product here (note that at full size, it’s actually really readable, and not as abstract as it looks zoomed out):

Version 1 - Dark Monochrome
Version 1 – Dark Monochrome
Version 2 - Light
Version 2 – Light

Hiding In Plain Sight

While walking through Georgetown yesterday, I did something that I have done numerous times in the past two years—I walked past the Halcyon House. Typically I pass by it on Prospect street and either continue on that road, or sometimes I turn to go down towards the river via 34th Street. But today, I did something different. Yesterday, I really looked. I often find myself looking at the places around me, digesting visual input about what makes those places unique. However, in all of my looking at this particular building, it’s history had never been so apparent as it was today. Maybe it was the cloudless bright summer sky that illuminated the east elevation so well, but in plain view, I could see at least three distinct building periods betrayed to my eye by the masonry. Inspired by so many posts on blogs like Preservation in Pink, I decided to take a photo and share it here, because I just thought it was too good of an example of how much information we can learn from our surroundings—and in particular, our historic buildings—if we just open our eyes!

Without further adieu, please enjoy the following animation of this original image, showing my hypothetical progression of building periods (click for a larger view):

Progression of building periods based on visual clues at the Halcyon House, Georgetown, Washington, DC.
Progression of building periods based on visual cues at the Halcyon House, Georgetown, Washington, DC.

Please note that I decided not to research the actual building progression history for now, so that I could just be reading the building based on visual evidence.