Transcribing Gravestones

One of the most demanding tasks when it comes to recording inscriptions, is when the stone has become so weathered that the lettering is almost impossible to read. Different types of stone weather differently. Some just lose their sharpness where the lettering has been inscribed, and others actually physically lose their surface, where a thin layer of stone literally peels way, and with it, the inscription. Some types of stone, particularly limestone and granite, suffer from chemical erosion. Rainwater is actually a dilute carbonic acid, and this acid can have a disastrous effect on limestone. Granite is made up of three minerals, quartz, mica and feldspar, and the feldspar decomposes slowly but surely in rainwater. Without doubt, the longest lasting inscriptions are those made in slate. many modern gravestones are made from a rock known as labradorite, a crystalline rock similar to granite, but with purplish hues in the crystals when viewed from different angles. This rock, especially when the surface is polished, appears to retain an inscription well, but only time will tell. It is a very attractive stone, which is used in many modern buildings too, and which has therefore earned itself the nickname of “shopfrontite” amongst geologists.

An inscription on a headstone relies on light and shadows for its clarity. The stone is, after all, just the same throughout. The eye is tricked into perceiving that the inscription is of a different shade or colour purely because of the shadow cast in the inscribed lettering. It is when a stone becomes weathered, and the sharp lines of the lettering softened, that it becomes difficult to read, as the shadows are much less distinct. The trick in reading such stones is therefore to view them in such a way that the shadows are intensified.

Tips for helping with Transcriptions

One method of efficient transcribing is to wait until the sun shines across the stone at a shallow angle, casting deeper shadows. This can then clarify individual letters more clearly, revealing what it says on the stone.

Another method would be to shine a strong light across the stone – such as a torch across the face of the stone (this is particularly effective at dusk or at night). This works in the same principle as the sun tip above, however if you do not have the weather in your favour, a torch may suffice.  If you use something to make a shadow on the stone, and then use a mirror to redirect the sun’s rays parallel to the surface of the stone, that should also be able to show the transcription engraved into the stone.

Use a viewing tube, (a 2ft length of plastic drain pipe), held against the stone to prevent light entering, and then tilt the end of the tube touching the stone slightly, so that a little light enters, and then view the inscription through the tube

Once you have recorded a few headstone inscriptions, it becomes obvious that certain phrases are used, such as “In Loving Memory of”, “who died”, “who departed this life”, and so on. Also certain important parts such as the person’s name, date of death and age, often appear in a certain order.

It is important to note that it is not always necessary to read all of the inscription letter by letter to understand what it says; there will be a lot of similar phrases!

Even stones which have exfoliated, that is, the surface layer has peeled off, and with it the inscription, can sometimes reveal the remnants of an inscription. It is almost as if the percussive action of the mason’s chisel has “bruised” the stone, and even though the surface has completely peeled off, there may be some hint of the lettering remaining.

Colouring of the surface can help Transcribe

It is sometimes possible on a uniformly coloured stone surface, to lightly brush the surface with the palm of your hand, which raises a light dust (often dead lichen), and leaves the recessed inscription as a dark colour. It is often worth a try! One must always be careful not to damage the stone however, and I have seen some people prescribe the use of a wire brush on the surface to gain a similar effect. Personally I would never do this. The use of chalk, lightly rubbed over the surface, can sometimes highlight the edges of worn lettering. Some people have had success rubbing mud into the stone’s surface. Even clean water applied to the surface can sometimes show up parts of a well-worn inscription.

Preserving a Headstone

So, the headstone of an ancestor is starting to show signs of weathering. What can be done to arrest the decay of the inscription? Stone masons renovating old buildings use a colourless stone sealant, sprayed or brushed onto the surface. So why should we not do this too?

In need of help transcribing?

If you are still in need of help transcribing a headstone, then one option is to consult our forum. Our knowledgeable users know a thing or two about transcribing gravestones. Whether you need someone to come and help you out or it is a simple case of deciphering a letter that is visible but difficult to transcribe, all you need to do is sign up for a free forum account and ask away!