Donald Slater Leads History Class on Old Burial Grounds

Jackie McCarthy ’19. a student in Donald Slater’s new elective History-562, examines a headstone.

During their 75-minute period each Thursday, students travel to the North Andover Old Burial Ground to catalog gravestones, noting their transcriptions, condition, direction, and motifs. Ultimately, the class aims to document such data with a 3-D map of the graveyard and make the information public through a user-friendly database.

Donald Slater, Instructor in History and Social Science and Research Scholar at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology, is teaching this new elective, History-562 Skulls, Angels, and Hour Glasses: Early New England Gravestone Iconography and Field Research.

Slater said that he has been using local burial grounds as teaching tools since he began working at the Peabody in 2002.

“Old burial grounds are outdoor museums. They contain the remains of many of our ancestors, and the inscriptions and iconography on the stones provide a window into the past that allows us to understand how they lived, died, thought, and believed,” wrote Slater in an email to The Phillipian.

The North Andover Old Burial Ground, established in 1650, is a graveyard with about 350 gravestones, including those of North Andover’s founding ancestors.

“I have been fascinated by colonial burial grounds since I was in sixth grade and encountered an overgrown and unmaintained graveyard in Bradford, [Mass.]… I specifically selected the Old Burial Ground in North Andover since it is not overwhelmingly large and because it contains only antique stones dated before 1856 and going back to the seventeenth century,” wrote Slater.

When collecting data, students visually survey each stone, transcribe textual inscriptions, and record iconographic elements, such as winged skulls and cherubs. According to Slater, it is  important to record and preserve the history of these graves, especially now that they possess the technology to do so.

Jack Curtin ’19, a student in Slater’s class, said “I’ve always loved history, but I’ve always been interested in doing actual field work [and the] more archaeological side of history. So this [class] was exactly that. I get to actually go out in the field.”

Curtin continued, “I think it’s incredibly important to know where we were in terms of religion, especially since a lot of gravestones were religious in their ethnography and in their writings. It’s important to know where we were religiously [and] to know where we’re going religiously.”

After collecting substantial data, the class will use tools like drones, 3-D scanners, a ground-penetrating radar, and more to create a virtual map of the burial ground.

“We hope that researchers will be able to run powerful database searches that will allow for highly specific results, e.g. ‘Show me all stones from 1740-1770 which depict a cherub and mark the graves of women with the last name Stevens who died between the ages of 20 and 30.’ Ideally, these stones could also be dynamically highlighted on the 3D map which will help users visualize associated spatial data of certain burials,” wrote Slater.

Each of the students will compile their research into a large database, to which everybody in the class has access. By the end of the term, as a part of their final, the students plan to present their methods and data to the North Andover Historical Society.

According to Jackie McCarthy ’19, another student in Slater’s class, the size and complexity of the yard, coupled with the short amount of time the 11-person class has to collect data, will be a challenge.

“So far, our class has entered 74 stones into the database. But we haven’t even begun our work with all of the photography, scans, radars, etc. Another big obstacle is trying to read the stones accurately while still preserving their condition. Many of the stones have lots of biological growth, chipping, sunken epitaphs, etc. In many cases, these things will cover words, dates, or even the entire face of a stone,” wrote McCarthy in an email to The Phillipian.

This project is being completed in collaboration with the North Andover Historical Commission and the North Andover Historical Society, along with funding from the Tang Institute.

Slater wrote, “This project will take several years to complete. The next step will be to just keep gathering data in the field and processing it back on campus for the next couple of years… Time is the biggest obstacle. Schedules are tight at Andover, so we don’t have as much time in the field as any of us would like… Overall, however, I am thoroughly enjoying the course, and the students who signed up are amazing.”