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October-ganza Day 6: The ‘Hieroglyphic’ Gravestone Carver of Londonderry, NH

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October 6, 2015 by Bret Kramer (aka WinstonP)

We cannot have October-ganza at Sentinel Hill Press without at least one piece about gravestones, can we? 😉

Wight Map

Attention D&D players – Here is where you can find ‘Wights’ in certain cemeteries 😉

Today our topic is the gravestone carver John Wight (1702-1775), a gravestone carver whose work can primarily be found in the cemeteries of southern New Hampshire.  Wight was a self-taught carver; his primary occupation was actually farmer.  He had come to New Hampshire in 1718 at the age of 16, as part of a large group of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who founded what now the town of Londonderry and the bulk of his clients were of the same community.  Wight (sometimes spelled “White”) took up gravestone carving around 1733 and worked on gravestones until the last few years of his life.

What is remarkable about Wight is his repeated use of specific symbolic elements of his stones that taken together were unlike any other colonial stone carver.  Most often he carved a trio of symbols in the tympanum (the top of the gravestone, where more often you might see a skull or winged face), usually a coffin, a stylized geometrical star, and/or a heart:

Wight Coffin Star HeartThis pattern varied between stones, with sometimes the coffin flanking the geometrical star on both sides, or a star flanked by two hearts.  Smaller shapes were sometimes inscribed within these coffins, stars, and hearts, including diamonds, hearts, flowers, and triangles.

On some stones the coffin was replaced by a different symbols, such as an hourglass:

Hourglass

Or crossed bones:

Crossed bones

Sometimes a shovel was added next to the coffin (here with an inscribed diamond):

Coffin with shovel

The ‘star’ symbol evolved over the years, sometimes incorporating a rosette, sometimes being replaced by one entirely:

Rosette

Wight is thought to have carved more than 250 gravestones altogether in his forty year career.  His methods were simple, an in comparison to many of his more professional contemporaries, this part-time stonecarver’s works were unrefined.  His rustic style was complicated by the stones available to him – rough slates and granite-like stones which were challenging to cut in the same precise way others might work the fine slate from Pin Hill in Harvard.

Gravestone scholar Peter Benes suggests that we should interpret Wight’s symbols in light of the verses he often inscribed in conjunction with them, such as:

My body turned into dust
My dust it shall rise
In resurrection of the just
To sound Jehova’s praise

We can then group Wight’s symbols into categories:

  • Death – coffin, crossed bones, hourglass
  • the Just – Hearts, small diamonds
  • Angels (agents of the divine) – the geometrical stars

Wight’s pattern of symbols then is a pictographical recreation of his verse, in which death is overcome by the mercy of God.  Benes further suggest that Wight symbolic arrangements were a discrete promise that the deceased would receive God’s grace and of the Resurrection, as opposed to the Puritan rejection of graven images and assumption of damnation.

{It was also Peter Benes who dubbed Wight’s symbols hieroglyphs, which admittedly lends them a certain mystical air.  It is a bit of a tradition among in the community of tapho-academics to dub certain carvers, especially those who identities are unknown or uncertain with descriptive monikers (such as Forbes’ “Thistle-carver of Tatnuck” (aka William Young), Caulfield’s “Hook-and-Eye Man” or “the Bat”).}

Detail of the gravestone of John Barnett, from the Faber Gravestone Archive

Detail of the gravestone of John Barnett, from the Farber Gravestone Archive

A select number of Wight’s gravestones can be viewed online as part of the Farber Gravestone Collection.  I have also created a page on my personal blog about New England’s gravestone carvers, including links to source material, if you’d like to read more on other carvers.

My sources for this post came from Peter Benes’ “John Wight: The Hieroglyph Carver of Londonderry” (Old-time New England vol. 64, no. 2 {Oct.-Dec. 1973}; p. 31-41) and David H. Watters “’Fencing ye Tables’: Scotch-Irish Ethnicity and the Gravestones of John Wight.Markers XVI (1999), p. 174-209.”  The images used in this article come from the former article.

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