Saturday, June 28, 2008

Grave Orientation

Scott asked about grave orientation at the newly discovered cemetery at Port Tobacco. He noted that according to Christian tradition the preferred orientation is east-west; that is, the body is laid out with the head at the west end of its east-west axis and the feet at the east end. On judgment day, the dead arise facing the rising sun (a metaphor for the return of Christ).

The tradition today is honored more in the breach than the observance, but there is accumulating evidence that Europeans in Colonial America often did not observe the tradition outside of church cemeteries.

The graves uncovered at Port Tobacco so far are oriented about thirty degrees west of north; which is to say, they are closer to north-south than east-west in orientation...not what we might expect for a church cemetery.

Below is the map of the Patuxent Point household cemetery that I worked on in southern Calvert County with the Maryland Historical Trust nearly 20 years ago. This graveyard probably was in use from the 1660s through the 1680s, and possibly into the early 1700s, by a succession of households.

I've divided the graves into groups or clusters based on their orientation and other factors. Note that some intrude into others and that allows us to determine the order in which they were placed: 1, 3, and then 2. The fourth cluster probably represents laborers and its date relative to those of the other groups cannot be determined. The upshot of the analysis is that only Cluster 3 graves approach the ideal of an east-west orientation.

The general pattern at the Port Tobacco cemetery remains to be seen. Grave orientation certainly will be among the issues that the PTAP crew will address when we find some funding for the further exploration of that cemetery. And don't forget: we still have the later cemetery on the north side of town to locate and define and, possibly, resurrect and restore long buried grave markers.


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