One of the Oldest in Charleston
The graveyard of Circular church is likely the oldest English burial ground still in existence in Charleston. While many gravestones have disappeared, over 500 remain, with about 730 individuals named on those stones. Another 620 persons are named in church records with indications they were most likely buried in the graveyard.
Statistics for gravestones currently in the graveyard:
- Earliest unmarked grave: 1695
- Earliest inscribed gravestone: 1729
- Number of burials before 1776: 150
- Number of burials for people who were born before 1800: 450
The oldest gravestones are made of slate and were shipped from carvers in New England. These slates with images and medallion portraits have been called by one writer "an extraordinary and irreplaceable legacy of our artistic and cultural past." According to one gravestone historian, there are more of these unusual 18th century slate stones in this graveyard than anywhere else in the country. Our challenge is to preserve and maintain these historic artifacts.
The evolution of gravemarker artwork over the years reflects the changing attitudes toward death more graphically than do the inscriptions.
|Markers in the 1600s typically were inscribed with stark skull-and-crossbone markings, the ancient symbol of death.|
By the early 1700s, when John Vanderhorst was buried in the church graveyard, ideas were changing.
Although skulls were still in plain evidence, the crossbones were beginning to be replaced by wings and the resulting image was being called "death's head." So, although the skull continued to emphasize death, the wings were introducing the idea of flight from the Earth or life after death.
As the years passed, the sculptors emphasized life more and more, and death less and less. At first they began softening the skulls' appearances by adding upper lips and eyebrows, and later they even began adding noses and mouths.
In the early stages of this change, beginning around 1730, the sculptors inserted the mouth between the skull's nose and teeth. And although the teeth were retained, they were dropped down so they looked more like high collars or disfigured chins.
Still later, around 1740-45, the teeth disappeared from the skulls altogether. The wings remained, however, and at that point the skulls lost all their harshness. Instead they looked more like angels' faces -- and in fact, that's about what they were. They weren't even called skulls any longer, but "soul effigies" because they represented departing souls.
The major contribution of the eighteenth century to American gravestone art was portraiture. The term "portraiture" is used in gravestone studies to mean natural representations of the deceased (although whether the carver attempted to capture an individual likeness rather than simply to represent a type is a question that is still being studied). While there are many examples of portraiture in Circular's churchyard, none have been located in any other South Carolina or Georgia towns.
Enough Roman-style portraits exist in Charleston to suggest that, by the mid-1700s, Americans were beginning to identify themselves culturally with the Romans. This bust of Solomon Milner (1726-1757), which has been called "the most notable and best preserved example of neoclassicism from 18th-century Charleston," reflects the popularity of this style.
Henry Simonds (d. 1695)
Henry Peronneau (d. 1743)
Major Anthony Toomer (d. 1798)
David Ramsay (d.1815)
Arthur Peronneau (d. 1774) in Hutson-Peronneau Vault
Richard Hutson (d. 1795) in Hutson-Peronneau Vault
You can also read more about the history of Circular Church.
Our historic church is as vibrant in the present as it has been in the past. We invite you to learn about present-day Circular, by exploring the rest of our website, watching our video on YouTube, liking us on Facebook, and joining us in worship on Sunday morning (11 a.m., or 10:15 a.m. from June to Labor Day).
For additional information about Circular and its historic graveyard, read Joanne Calhoun's book, The Circular Church, Three Centuries of Charleston History, published by www.historypress.net in 2008 (and available locally and online). You can also access our records, which are housed at the South Carolina Historical Society. We also encourage you to visit the Association for Gravestone Studies, which promotes the study of gravestones from historical and artistic perspectives, expands public awareness of the significance of historic gravemarkers, and encourages individuals and groups to record and preserve gravestones.