Potter's field

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A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, New York, circa 1890 by Jacob Riis.

A potter's field, paupers' grave or common grave is a term for a place for the burial of unknown or indigent people. The US[1] expression potter's field derives from the Bible, referring to a field used for the extraction of potter's clay; such land, useless for agriculture, could be used as a burial site.


Main article: Akeldama

The term comes from Matthew 27:3-27:8 in the New Testament of the Bible, in which Jewish priests take 30 pieces of silver returned by a remorseful Judas:

Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." But they said: "What is that to us? Look thou to it." And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself with a halter. But the chief priests, having taken the pieces of silver, said: "It is not lawful to put them into the corbona, because it is the price of blood." And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. For this the field was called Haceldama, that is, the field of blood, even to this day.[2]

The site referred to in these verses is traditionally known as Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potters' clay. Obviously, such a strip-mining site would not then be good for agriculture and might as well become a graveyard for those who could not be buried in an orthodox cemetery. This may be the origin of the name.[3]

Matthew was drawing on earlier Biblical references to potters' fields. The passage continues, with verses 9 and 10:-

Then what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true: "They took the thirty silver coins, the amount the people of Israel had agreed to pay for him, and used the money to buy the potter's field, as the Lord had commanded me."

This is a free quotation from Zechariah 11:12-13. However, Matthew gives the quote to Jeremiah thereby creating confusion. There are two possible reasons for the reference to Jeremiah. Jeremiah also speaks of buying a field in Jeremiah 32:6-15 but that is a symbol of hope, not despair as mentioned here, and the price is 17 pieces of silver; and Matthew could have combined the words of the two prophets while only citing the "major" prophet. Secondly, "Jeremiah" was sometimes used to refer to the Books of the Prophets in toto[citation needed] as "The Law" is sometimes used to refer to Moses' five books – Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch.

Craig Blomberg suggests that the use of the blood money to buy a burial ground for foreigners in Matthew 27:7 may hint at the idea that "Jesus' death makes salvation possible for all the peoples of the world, including the Gentiles."[4] Other scholars do not read the verse as referring to Gentiles, but rather to Jews who are not native to Jerusalem.[5]


Popular culture[edit]

  • Hart Island, New York, the Potter's Field in New York City, is featured in the film Don't Say a Word. The independent documentary Hart Island: An American Cemetery by Melinda Hunt also concerns Hart Island.
  • Mr. Potter, the greedy banker in the Frank Capra film It's a Wonderful Life, is told by his land agent that his slum-like housing will soon be a "potter's field" due to the Baileys' efforts to build affordable housing.
  • It is now confirmed that the child actor Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan, 1953) is buried in Potter's Field on Hart Island in New York, being unidentified at the time of his burial.[9] This is also loosely referenced in Law & Order: Criminal Intent in the episode "Blasters".
  • In the HBO drama Oz, "Potter's Field" is the name for the cemetery where deceased prisoners with no next-of-kin or whose remains are unclaimed are buried
  • In the 1953 film Pickup on South Street, the character Moe Williams' (Thelma Ritter) sole motivation for work is to save money in order to prevent a possible burial in Potter's Field.
  • In Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is buried in Potter's Field.
  • From Potter's Field is a novel by Patricia Cornwell.
  • The Potter's Field is the name of the seventeenth chronicle in the series of Brother Cadfael detective books by Ellis Peters, later turned into a television episode.
  • Potter's Field is the title of an 3 issue limited comic book series (plus a one shot) written by Mark Waid and published by Boom! Studios about an anonymous investigator who takes it upon himself to discover the identities of those buried on Hart Island.
  • A potter's field is featured in Neil Gaiman's novel The Graveyard Book. One of the characters, Liza Hempstock, is a witch who was buried in a potter's field next to Nobody Owens' graveyard.
  • Potter's Field is an album by the rock band 12 Stones.
  • "No Eagle Lies in Potter's Field" is the name of a song by the rock band On A Pale Horse.
  • "Potter's Field" is the name of a song by the New York City native Thrash Metal band Anthrax from their 1993 album Sound of White Noise.
  • Railroad Earth has a song called "Potter's Field" on their self-titled 2010 album.
  • "Potter's Field" is a song by alternative band Mono Inc.
  • Tom Waits makes references to Potter's Field in several of his songs.
  • On the title track to Johnny Cash's album American IV: The Man Comes Around, the lyrics include a reference to "the potter's ground" as a metaphor for dying without salvation.
  • In the long-running MUD GemStone IV, an area called the "Potter's Field" is the primary spawn area for zombies. The area's descriptions are, indeed, of a long-disused graveyard for the indigent and unknown.
  • Similarly, in City of Villains a massive graveyard called "Potter's Field" is a place where zombies spawn, while magicians use the area for necromantic rituals.
  • American bluegrass band Blue Highway mentions a Potter's field as Ottie's final resting place in the song "Clay and Ottie".
  • The name of the American Noise rock band A Place to Bury Strangers describes a potter's field.
  • The Venture Compound in The Venture Brothers has a potter's field containing dead henchman. The boys remembered their father telling them to avoid a spooky house on the edge of their property, "Mr. Potter's house". However the actual inhabitant, a reclusive scientist named Ben, told Dean Venture that no one named "Mr. Potter" had ever lived there, and theorized that Dean's father had actually called it "potter's field", because he and his father used the field in front of the house to bury the massive number of supervillains and henchmen who died on the compound over the decades.
  • The term was used by Saul Berenson in the Series Homeland Episode 7 to describe where Raqim Faisel would be buried.
  • Potter's Field is a novel by Frank Roderus which won the Spur Award for Best Paperback Original in 1996.
  • Over the Garden Wall features a town called Pottsfield, which is the residence of dead spirits.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/potters field (accessed: December 24, 2014).
  2. ^ Douay-Rheims Bible
  3. ^ R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary, Eerdmans (1985), page 386
  4. ^ Craig L. Blomberg, "Matthew," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 97.
  5. ^ Brown, Raymond. The Death of the Messiah. Yale University Press, Dec 1, 1998 pg. 646
  6. ^ Hidden Truths: Potter's Field
  7. ^ Hart Island; Melinda Hunt and Joel Sternfeld; ISBN 3-931141-90-X
  8. ^ http://www.montrealmirror.com/ARCHIVES/2003/091803/news1.html
  9. ^ "Hart Island", The Morning News

External links[edit]