How to Identify the Hand of the Carver

It’s not always a sure thing, but the curlicues on the base of the “1” and the volute “6” on this stone are among the indices to the work of the carver known as “The Old Stone Cutter,” “The Boston Carver,” and “The Charlestown Carver.” We know this because, beginning in the 1930s, Harriet M. Forbes located stones whose named carvers were listed as paid in probated estate records. She photographed them, began comparing the photos, and using her comparisons was able to determine through stylistic evidence nearly 250 early carvers in the New England region.  (Her collection is now housed in the American Antiquarian Society in Worcerster and available online here).

The Old Cambridge Burying Ground’s 800 stones include work by several of these carvers: those who attend my tours are able to identify at least 6 different hands by the time we’re done! The Old Stone Cutter, his two apprentices–William Mumford and Joseph Lamson–and at least three, possibly four of the Lamson carvers are all represented near the center of the yard.


Daniel Hastings’ shop was across the river in Newton. Thomas Marsh’s Latin epitaph may have been written by Thomas Sewall, a nephew of Judge Samuel Sewall.

Daniel Hastings placed stones in the OCBG, too, and one of the inset family crests looks like the work of Henry Christian Geyer, who also did the Seth Hastings stone. (There are also one, possibly two or more, early 17th c. carvers yet to be identified.)


Dorothy Manning’s stone is probably by William Mumford, who used a beveled reveal behind the Death’s Head, giving it a deeper relief than the lighter, more incised carvings of his master the Old Stone Cutter. He retained the latter’s crossed bones and hourglass frieze.


We can tell Nathaniel Lamson’s work from that of Joseph, his father, because of the son’s more fluid lines and interest in varied case, Italic, and Germanic lettering. His use of the family hallmark, the pipe fig, in the sides and top frieze, is more lyrical as well; they flow in sinusoidal alternation with the acanthus leaves that form the borders they fill. 

As you learn what to look for, you see the personal variations in carving style and what the various carvers sought to do aesthetically in their work. This takes the analysis of the stones far beyond the usual “What’s that thing in the tympanum?” into the realm of appreciation for the work of one of the nation’s earliest artistic communities.

There are also stones by William Codner, at least one that is probably by Caleb Lamson, Nathaniel’s other brother, and others. I’ll discuss more of these later!





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