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Seriation banner exercise

In this exercise you will analyze a series of grave markers from Crown Hill Cemetery using a technique known as seriation.  Seriation establishes a relative chronological ordering of a class of artifacts based upon change and continuity in material style.  In lecture we will most closely examine seriation by looking at shifts in New England gravestone style from the late-seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries, and the classic seriation study was conducted on ceramics in Egyptian burials.  Similar analyses can be done of any object whose style changes over time, from projectile points to automobiles.

This exercise analyzes 48 real grave markers manufactured between 1864 and 1997 based on stylistic changes in grave marker designs.  Style is any visible material "attribute": in cars, for instance, we might perform a seriation analysis based on tail fin size, white wall tires, frame size, or other attributes which change over time.  Style can have some functional dimension--for instance, perhaps tail fins originally were designed to make cars go faster and do really have some aerodynamic function--but they can also be purely aesthetic.  However, aesthetics are themselves rooted in dominant social and cultural conditions, so identifying changes in style begins to show us what folks are thinking at any given moment.

McGinnis markerSeriation analyses track changes in style by identifying aesthetic attributes within a class of material objects.  For example, in the grave markers included here the attributes that are examined include shape of marker, height, width, color of stone, and design details.  We assume that at any given point in time most folks will share the same style:  if you go to a cemetery today you'll notice that contemporary markers do not look anything like markers 100 years ago.  This is just like when you see an old car and you "get a feeling" that it is old:  you're identifying some attributes that do not seem to fit with your material understanding of contemporary cars.  There are always some folks who have a distinctive style.  Some of these people will establish the next style, while others end up having no followers:  consequently, you will find some markers in this exercise that are quite unique for a variety of class, social, historical, and personal reasons.  We also assume stylistic change occurs gradually.  For instance, we do not all one day resolve to wear bell-bottom jeans; instead, some innovator introduces a style and it gradually spreads through a society, enjoys a peak in popularity, and eventually declines in popularity as it is replaced by a new style.  Therefore, two archaeological sites with ceramics that have the same style are likely to have been inhabited closely in time.  On the other hand, two sites with radically different pottery styles are unlikely to have been inhabited at the same time or closely in time.  If archaeologists dig up a bunch of central Indiana sites in a thousand years and find one site with projectile points and another site with Volkswagen parts, they're going to make the safe assumption that these sites probably were not inhabited at the same time:  they'll figure that sites from the Volkswagen period will have Beetle parts, and sites from the projectile period will have stone technology.  In the same way, two markers with the same design are likely to have been made at about the same point in time.  The great thing about grave markers is that they're dated and we can subsequently check our stylistic analyses against the dates on the stones.

How to complete the exercise

The exercise is divided into four sections, including this one.  At the end of this section you'll find a link that will take you to the marker data description page.  That page explains the terms used to describe the markers and provides illustrations of some examples.  Please be sure not to answer the exercise questions using the examples provided on the marker description page.  At the end of that marker description page a link will take you to the data table, which includes physical descriptions of all the grave markers and links to pictures:  you should answer the questions that follow based on the 48 markers in this table.   At the end of the data table you will find a link to the exercise questions:  these are the questions that you will be expected to answer based on your marker seriation.   Every page has links at the bottom that will bring you back to the other sections or the class home page.

First, begin by reading through the marker data description page, which explains the types of grave markers and defines the terms that are used in the data table that inventories the markers in the exercise.

Second, proceed to the data table, which includes the physical descriptions and photographs of all the markers in the exercise.  The markers have been placed in random order; i.e., they are not in the table in the order they were produced, and your mission is to place them in relative chronological order based on your style analysis.   You will notice that some markers in the table have production dates; these dates will provide you a starting point for constructing your relative chronology.  For instance, if one of the in-ground markers in red stone dates to 1988, then you can assume that other markers that are made in this same shape and color are likely to have been made at about the same time.

To place the markers in chronological order, the most straightforward method is to print the full data table and then take a pair of scissors and cut out the data for each marker.  This will give you 48 long pieces of paper that each have the description of a single marker.  Take the pieces of paper and lay them down on a table and sort them first by shape.  So, for instance, place all the in-ground markers together, since we assume that most of them were made within a relatively discrete span of time and not over the full 140 years covered in the exercise sample.  Do the same thing with all the shapes represented in the sample.  Some of the markers are dated in the exercise table, so this will give you clues to when certain types of shapes were being made.

Within each shape, group the markers by other sets of attributes so that you can begin to get a sense of which markers within that group were produced first and which are most recent.  For example, now that you've placed all the in-ground markers together on the table, try grouping them by another attribute, such as color, height, or width:  we assume that the most similar markers were likely made at about the same time.  Do you see a pattern becoming evident, such as the largest markers are older, or the black markers are made earliest?

Now see if you can put the categories of marker shapes in relative order from oldest to most recent.  You can start to do this by beginning with the markers that you already have dated.  Place these markers and similar shaped markers in relative chronological order on the table.  So, for example, if you had one red in-ground marker in the data table dated 1887, and a monumental marker dated 1860 and an above-ground marker 1930, then you could assume that the in-ground markers were most popular between the time those other two shape styles were most popular.  We assume there will be a period of time with some style overlap in which two styles (or more) co-exist at the same time, and you can begin to identify these overlapping styles by identifying similarity in attributes of markers in two different shape groups.  For instance, using the same example, the in-ground markers appear to date to before the above-ground markers.  You might then ask if there is an attribute that some markers of both types share:  for example, maybe some of the above-ground and in-ground markers alike are red, which suggests that the red in-ground markers were produced immediately before or concurrent with the red above-ground markers.

There are always a few markers that are anomalies:  somehow the style doesn't fit easily into the available categories and the marker is unique or nearly so.  Various factors can explain these style distinctions.  For instance, wealthy folks sometimes will erect atypical markers that are monumental in scale or unique in style to reflect their power in life and the continuing sway of their living families.  Some markers are distinctive for purely cultural and ethnic reasons:  Crown Hill includes markers from various faiths as well as worldwide cultures with quite different mortuary practices and marker symbolism than that practiced in the US.   And sometimes folks are just idiosyncratic:  they may have a unique personal sense of style, a distinctive personal or family history they want to recognize, or a sense of humor about the somewhat weighty prospect of death.  Some of these anomalous styles end up being trend-setters, because other folks see the marker style and adapt it themselves.  On the other hand, some potential trend-setters cannot attract any followers, so their markers remain utterly unique.

Third, once you have developed a tentative relative chronology that places the markers in order from oldest to most recent, you can begin to answer the questions.  Don't be too concerned if you have a few markers that you're not really sure where to place in the chronology, because you will not be compelled to place every marker in proper order.

The Facts of Life

You must hand in a paper that clearly and thoroughly answers all of the questions on the question page.  This means that a strong paper will clearly indicate exactly what data led you to your conclusions:  be detailed and clear, and feel free to note wherever necessary when you may have some doubts about conclusions.  Papers that include half-sentence or sketchy answers will be graded down significantly.  Your paper MUST be typed and double-spaced or I will automatically deduct 10% from your final grade for the exercise.   The paper MUST be typed in a font 12 pitch or smaller, and all margins should be 1".

The completed paper is due March 2.  Late papers will have a letter grade deducted each day they are late.  Please contact me immediately if you are unable to meet the deadline for any reason.

Any questions?  Just email me at

Marker descriptions

Exercise questions

Human Origins and Prehistory home page

Marker data

Last updated January 11 2016