Alfred Wallace’s Petrified Wood Tombstone

Today, I learned about another great stone tombstone. It is a several-foot-tall piece of petrified wood that marks the grave of one of my heroes, Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace, who came up with his theory of natural selection while in a malarial haze, was buried at the Broadstone Cemetery in the town of Broadstone, about 100 miles southwest of London. He died on November 7, 1913, and despite some suggestions that he be buried next to Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey, Wallace had a simple burial on November 10.

Three images of Wallace tombstone: From 1914, from 1999 (before restoration), from 2001 (after restoration). Oldest image is from James Marchant’s book, Alfred Russel Wallace; Letters and Reminiscences. Modern shots both by George Beccaloni from his web site devoted to Wallace. Copyright of 1999 and 2001 images owned by George Beccaloni

His grave marker consists of a block of Purbeck limestone, often incorrectly called a marble because of its abilty to take a high polish, on which stands the petrified wood. According to a web site devoted to Wallace, the tree could have come from the Isle of Portland, which Wallace visited in 1894 with the famed American paleobotanist Lester F. Ward. The petrified wood on Wallace’s grave resembles a tree identified as Protocupressinoxylon purbeckensis, a conifer. These trees grew near a hypersaline lagoon in a Mediterranean-type climate of warm, wet winters, and hot, dry summers. The trees, many of which have been found upright, in situ, occur in the Great Dirt Bed of the Purbeck Formation. Deposition was around 146 million years ago.

In 1998, George Beccaloni, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London, visited Wallace’s grave and was surprised to find it in horrible shape. A tree engulfed the site and made it nearly impossible to see the plaque that mentioned Wallace. In addition the tree’s roots were pushing up the old marker. So in 1999, Beccaloni established the A. R. Wallace Memorial Fund to repair and restore Wallace’s grave.

With funding provided by a number of sources, Wallace’s site has now been restored and enhanced. The Fund added a granite block under the Purbeck limestone, to prevent further root encroachment, and placed a new plaque on the grave, which provides a few key details about Wallace’s life, including his contribution to evolution by natural selection. It is suitable way to honor one of the greats of natural history.

Tree Stump Tombstones

As noted in my previous posting, slate does have a long history as a wonderful tombstone material but my favorite tombstones are the ones carved from Salem Limestone. At Green Hill Cemetery in Bedford, Indian, a pair of six-foot-tall tree stumps with interlocked broken branches memorializes Mammie Osborn Maddox and Alonzo Maddox. Stone flowers “sprout” from the base of her tree with ferns “growing” from the base of his. Nearby stands the tombstone of Hattie Wease, who died in 1912. Her tree stump rises from a stack of horizontal, cut logs. Above her name are an axe and mallet, carved with precise detail into the stone.

Other stumps depict vines climbing the bark, a lamb at the base of a child’s tomb, doves nesting on branches, or frogs hiding in foliage. Not purely decoration, each design has symbolic meaning. A broken branch represents a life cut short. A frog alludes to resurrection. Doves symbolize peace. These are shibboleths, codes that united individuals to a larger community. Even in death the residents of limestone country looked to stone to forge a common bond.

My favorite carving of all though honors Louis Baker, a 23-year old stonemason, who died in April 1917, when lightning struck him at home. His co-workers sculpted an exact replica of how Baker left his work bench. On the upper edge of a slanted stone slab, they carved his metal square. Below rest a narrow drove and a stub-handled broom, one edge of which abuts a foot-long point. A wider chisel leans atop a hammer that just touches the sharpened end of the point. Nearby is the apron he tossed onto his mallet. The slab sits on another slab, propped on a bench so perfect in detail of the wood that one of the “boards” warps and others have cracks where someone, perhaps the young stonemason, had overtightened the bolts holding together the planks.

The bench moved me not only because it reveals the qualities of stone—90 years of weathering have not removed the details of individual straws of the broom, but the bench also reveals the qualities of the men who worked the stone. Yes, they could carve elaborate and beautiful pieces, but to honor one of their own the men of limestone country produced a monument that reflected gratification in working with simple tools, pride in their trade, respect for their co-workers. Neither fancy nor symbolic, Baker’s tombstone is utilitarian and straightforward, qualities that made Salem Limestone America’s building stone.