Deciphering an 18th century Middletown, CT Gravestone


18th century Connecticut tombstone, object ID # 172, Wesleyan University Archaeology and Anthropology Collections


Here Lyeth ye /

Body of Sipi[?] /

Indian Who[n?] /

Died Feb [?] y [2] /

~1731~ /

Aged [6?] years

** The top of the stone is carved with a simplified head with decorative circles on either side. The accession records only tell us that it is from “Middletown (?).” **

When I started researching this tombstone, I could only make out the first five lines of writing. Some of it can be read visually but some of the letters are so worn that they can only be made out by feeling their outlines. Figuring out the letters was only half the battle. A lot of the language is archaic and is difficult to fully interpret, especially in the tombstone’s weathered state. What does the inscription mean? What can it tell us about the carver and the memorialized?

The carvings at the top show two patterns. At the center is a “death’s head”- a skull-like carving that serves as a reminder of mortality. Death’s heads were often winged (though this one is not), and reminders of mortality that “derived from the strong and stern religious beliefs of the Puritans” (Farber 2003, p. 20). The other carvings on the stone are a simple version of a rosette motif. These secondary motifs were common for the shoulders of simple gravestones in this period. This particular stone is fairly simple and could have been carved by one of the local carvers (although I was not able to identify one by the style) or by an amateur, as was seen occasionally in historical Connecticut cemeteries (Duval 1978, p. 37).

To understand the writing, I examined scholarship on gravestones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Inscriptions on these tombstones often “opened with ‘Here Lyeth ye Body of’ or variations such as ‘Here Lyes Buried [or interred] ye Remains of,’ which evolved to the even more straightforward ‘Here Lies the Body of.’ ” This inscription was similar to the opening lines across a significant historical period in this region (Farber 2003, p. 24).

Wesleyan student and Central Connecticut State University professors view the tombstone in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. From left to right: Professor Alexandra Maravel, CCSU history professor; Isabel Alter, Wesleyan University, class of 2017; Professor Katherine Hermes, CCSU history professor.

The rest of the inscription gives us some information about the individual, when they died, and some part of their name but poses more questions than it answers. The name,“Sipi,” piqued the interest of Katherine Hermes and Alexandra Maravel, history professors at Central Connecticut State University. They have been working on a long term project about a Native American man with a similar name who lived in the area around that time. Could there be a connection between the individual commemorated on this stone and the subject of Hermes and Maravel’s research? Once we were able to read the final line of the inscription, indicating that the person was either a child (aged “6” years) or an individual in their 60s, it became clear that it was most likely not the same person but it certainly does not rule out the possibility of a connection. One thing that is unusual about the inscription, if it is indeed for a child, is that most other gravestones from this period for children as young as six tended to note who the parents were or shared a stone with their parent(s).

Central Connecticut State University professors view the tombstone in Wesleyan’s Archaeology and Anthropology Collections. From left to right: Professor Alexandra Maravel, CCSU history professor; Professor Katherine Hermes, CCSU history professor.

Neither the collection records nor Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives have information regarding the gravestone. The only records we have within the Archaeology and Anthropology Collections describe the object as a gravestone and tentatively suggest that it came from Middletown. The papers from the Wesleyan museum, which was established around the same time the gravestone came into the collection – 1871 and 1872 respectively – do not include any mention of it. The Middlesex County Historical Society similarly does not have any records of the stone.

After researching the gravestone for several weeks a few questions remain. How did the gravestone end up at Wesleyan? Evidence suggests that it originated nearby given that the records say “Middletown (?).” Substantiating that claim is that the tombstone is made out of brownstone, which was quarried in this region of Connecticut, especially just across the river from Middletown in Portland. However, this doesn’t bring us closer to explaining why someone collected a gravestone marking a grave that would have already been around 150 years old at the time of its collection. The other question remaining is whether this stone can be subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). I looked for evidence of previous NAGPRA cases applied specifically to gravestones – a Christianized burial practice – but was unable to find information on how the law might be applied.

There is still more to learn about this object. We can widen our search of cemetery records and continue to work with experts on Connecticut history who might know more about burial practices in the area and/or individuals who might have been connected to this stone. It is also important to think about how to best incorporate it into the collections, considering factors like the lack of historical records, NAGPRA implications, and general preservation. Preservation, of course, of the utmost importance given that ultimately an ideal ending to this story and research project would be to return the gravestone to its original location.

For their research suggestions and assistance I would like to thank Debby Shapiro at the Middlesex Historical Society, Professors (history) Alexandra Maravel and Katherine Hermes of Central Connecticut State University, and Wesleyan University Professor (American studies and anthropology) J. Kehaulani Kauanui.

by Isabel Alter, ’17


Reference Sources:

Duval, Francis Y., and Ivan B. Rigby. 1978. Early American Gravestone Art in Photographs. New York: Dover Publications.

Farber, Jessie Lie. 2003. “Early American Gravestones: Introduction to the Farber Gravestone Collection,” American Antiquarian Society,

Ludwig, Allan I. 1999. Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815. 3rd ed. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.