Learn about gravestone art in the Berkshires

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MONTEREY — During the late 1700s, Abraham Collins left his mark in cemeteries around Monterey.

The Tyringham stonecutter's cross-eyed winged cherub faces, carved into numerous gravestones are so distinct, his work can still be identified today.

"I'm mostly interested in the old time stone cutters. The early ones were more idiosyncratic and they each had their own little personal touches, something no one else did," said Robert Drinkwater, a historical archaeologist, who will lead a tour of Monterey's historic cemeteries on Saturday, Sept. 9, as part of a talk and tour on gravestone art hosted by the Bidwell House Museum.

Collins was the town's resident stonecutter, back when Monterey was still part of Tyringham. But he wasn't the only one carving the names of the dead into their grave markers.

"There was another guy, but he did the more medieval-type stuff," he said.

Drinkwater, who has a masters in anthropology from UMass-Amherst, has been studying, photographing and writing about gravestones and gravestone art for over 40 years.

"The interest goes back to my undergrad days at UMass-Amherst. It was the late 1960s and a friend of mine and a few of her other friends were on their way to a cemetery in Amherst to learn to do grave rubbings. I wasn't really interested in grave rubbings, but I went anyway," he said.

But it wasn't until the following summer that he took an introductory class in archaeology involving colonial gravestones in the Boston area that his interest was piqued.

"I thought, I can do that out here," he said. " I did my senior thesis on gravestones and gravestone art. It was around that time the Association for Gravestone Studies coalesced. I've been a member since it started."

As part of the Sept. 9 tour, Drinkwater will give a short presentation on gravestone art at the Bidwell House Museum.

"In New England, the very earliest art shows up in the late 17th century. Prior to that, the stones don't have carve imagery, which was quite agreeable with the Puritan influence," he said. "In the late 1600s, in Boston and out here, the stones start borrowing from the English tradition of winged skulls, which are symbols of mortality.

"They then switch over to the winged heads or soul effigies, which some people say represent souls in transit. They remained popular until the late 1700s. After the Revolutionary War, we start to see urns and willow trees."

Neoclassical influences, as well as some Victorian, remained in vogue until the 1830s and 1840s, when the marble industry began making gravestones and commercialized that industry.

Following the presentation, Drinkwater will lead a tour of several cemeteries, including the town's oldest burial ground, Henwood Cemetery.

"There's several examples of Collins' work there," he said. "Henwood is a little cemetery with some very ancient looking gravestones. I also plan on going to Old Center Cemetery and depending on the weather and interest, at least one other."

Reach Online Editor Jennifer Huberdeau at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com.


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