The Art of Gravestone Rubbing

Create your own gravestone rubbing and participate in a tradition that has occured for thousands of years.

| January 10, 2013

Long-standing lore, such as reading the clouds to predict the weather or using a divining rod to find water, enriches the traditions and culture of simple living. Author Jerry Mack Johnson offers a definitive guide of these whimsical teachings as well as practical advice for modern homesteaders in Old-Time Country Wisdom and Lore (Voyageur Press, 2011). Learn how to can fruits and vegetables, make a hammock, find the best fishing spots and more in this homespun encyclopedia of classic country know-how. Learn about the history of gravestone rubbing and create your own unique pieces in this excerpt from chapter 12, “Ways with Paint and Paper.” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Old-Time Country Wisdom and Lore.

History of Rubbing Technique

The technique of rubbing is thought to have originated in China around 300 B.C. The practice spread throughout the Chinese empire and eventually the entire Far East. In the beginning, it served as a means to disseminate the written word prior to the invention of the printing press. Literature and edicts of emperors were incised on stone tablets and then reproduced on paper by rubbing. Eventually, pictures were carved in stone expressly for the purpose of being copied in this way. Later, archaeologists employed the method to record early tomb carvings.

Choice of Gravestones

You can use this ancient technique to create decorative pictures for your walls. Surfaces or objects to rub are almost limitless: brasses, architectural reliefs, medals, coins, any incised designs, bark, leaves, flowers, etc.

Perhaps some of the most unusual and interesting rubbings can be made on gravestones in old burial grounds. Those dating before 1800 are hand carved and represent the first sculpture of colonial settlers. As such, they are a unique expression of primitive American art. The stone slabs with their carved motifs and religious symbols were intended for instruction of the generally illiterate public in matters of man’s mortality, his relation to God, and the blessings of heaven, thus reflecting religious attitudes of the times.

Gradually, as Puritan faith became less strict, religious symbols were replaced by stylized portraiture. Details of dress currently in vogue and often the occupation or social status of the deceased were depicted by the stonecutter. These early craftsmen displayed an instinctive sense of design and expert workmanship. So, gravestone rubbings several centuries old are both historically and artistically valuable.

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