Recording Monumental Inscriptions

(Clickable illustrations enlarge)
Why we do it: Nation-wide memorial readers are saving for posterity thousands of historical texts which run a real risk of being lost forever, as time and neglect take their toll. When Henry Simmons recorded who had been buried at St Leonard's in 1860, the memorial inscriptions were recent and clear; even then he felt obliged to include an NB:
"The Inscriptions on several Tombstones in the Churchyard (as well as in the Church), have become illegible from neglect and lapse of time. This shows the necessity ... to preserve ... as early as possible, the names of old families in the several churchyards of the county; many will otherwise, be lost."
"Carved in stone" is a misleading saying! Nature takes its course, either making retrieval an effort or obliterating carvings entirely - hence the urgency in recording what still remains of older inscriptions.
Permission: Prior to undertaking any systematic reading and recording exercise, the owner(s) of a site should be consulted and their approval obtained. Most will be very happy to grant permission, and may be able to provide records to help identify what to expect and serve as confirmation for obscure names and dates. Once permission has been given preparation often involves "gardening" and then cleaning to reveal the lettering. But first:

Making a Plan: Seriously, this is essential for making progress without omission or duplication of effort. Few churchyards have accurate plans, and cemeteries may well have incomprehensible location maps. Try to envisage how others will be able to pinpoint a memorial from your readings later. The area will need to be surveyed and split up into manageable sections or blocks, with each marker drawn in and numbered, whether it can be read or not. Finding one's way into the middle of a section, especially in older burial grounds, can be tricky without as many 'navigation' aids as possible. As you progress the illegible can be marked and their numbers discarded or retained, depending upon the character of the graveyard. Having a plan is also very helpful for those doing readings and the person collating the results.

Cleaning monuments, especially gravestones, has to be undertaken carefully so as not to damage either the base material or lettering. For the purpose of reading Monumental Inscriptions, the only areas which need attention are where the wording is, and then only to make the lettering sufficiently visible to record. Cleaning a whole monument is not normally necessary, except as part of a wider project to draw attention to a particular memorial, such as a notable local character.

Gardening: Depending upon the site of a monument, considerable work removing weeds, overgrown bushes and accumulated soil may be required. Because they are relatively heavy, stone memorials tend to sink over time, and some may have to be at least partially dug up. Suggested tools useful for accessing inscriptions:
  • Kneelers - to protect knees & clothing from stones, mud, thistles etc.
  • Gardening gloves - for roses and other thorny plants.
  • Garden shears - for trimming back general growth.
  • Secateurs - for smaller overgrown shrubs.
  • Branch Cutters - for tougher or larger branches.
  • Garden trowel - for easing soil away from the bottom of sunken stones.
  • Garden edging spade - for neatly removing grass around edges, particularly kerbs. An edging spade can also dig out smaller sunken stones.
  • Old wide blade - for trimming overgrown turf, probing for buried tablets etc.
  • Garden fork - for probing the ground, finding buried memorial tablets etc.
  • Large bags - for removing green waste to a municipal recycling tip.
Revealing and reading Inscriptions: Suggested equipment needed to clean stone surfaces and read them:
  • Holy Bible (King James version) and Latin Dictionary for biblical quotations & epitaphs - or a rather lighter internet-enabled mobile device.
  • Pump-action water sprayers - the larger 5-litre weed-killer variety last longer, are more effective and much less tiring.
  • A source of water (use rainwater if available). Spare bottles of water to top up sprayers if a local tap is unavailable.
  • Soft brushes - used scrubbing or washing-up brushes, 'medium' toothbrushes, etc. New hard brushes risk damaging surfaces and lettering.
  • Mirrors - to angle the sun across the lettering; it often reveals faint wording.
  • Torches - if there is no direct sunlight, under trees or indoors.
  • Long tape measure - to help draw plans of a site and indicate where memorials are located.
  • Recording Forms - pre-printed to ensure uniformity of data collection. *
  • Pencils and a rubber - the rubber will be needed!
  • Digital Camera - for recording inscriptions and whole monuments.
Tools of the trade Do NOT use:
  1. Scrapers of any kind, metal or plastic.
  2. Wire brushes.
  3. Brute force ...!
  4. Bleach or non-specialist soaps, chemicals, solvents etc - use water only.
  5. Pressure washers. Even on a 'low' or wide-spray setting they may loosen lettering, remove paint and damage the surface. Most old stonework is cleaned by soaking, not water-jets.
  6. Granite and marble can be damaged by inappropriate cleaning as easily as other stonework.
  7. Do not attempt to clean rusted iron memorials as this will damage them irreparably. Surface rust acts as a protective cover for good iron beneath; disturbing it causes the next layer to rust.
  8. Do not stand on paving covering the central part of a kerbed plot. It may not be as solid as it looks, resulting in a sharp drop into the burial void beneath!
Lichens & Algae: The British Lichen Society has identified churchyards as important conservation areas for many rare as well as common species of lichen, due to their relatively unpolluted environments. Disturbing lichen should be avoided where possible, on the backs and sides of monuments and where they do not totally obscure inscriptions.   Discolouring algae are almost always impossible to remove anyway, as they invade the stone and reside below the immediate surface.   Like algae, Black Spot which remains after surface cleaning is a type of lichen which takes root in the surface layers of stone. It is impossible to remove without special treatment, so don't try scrubbing it. Algae and lichen have a symbiotic relationship, in which algae supply energy to lichens in exchange for protection; so leaving algal growth helps disturbed lichens regrow.
* Forms: Numerous forms are suggested on the internet, each depending upon by whom and in what format the data is to be published. Creating your own may well be the best option. This avoids collecting superfluous details you won't need, but ensures you'll remember what you do want.
Most societies use the convention of placing a stroke - / - to denote the end of each line of text when first recording the text, to ensure the transcriber knows where line breaks occur. This can save considerable space both when recording and in publication. The latter is commonplace where presentation is not intended to mimic the original, though it can be difficult to read. Consider adopting your own conventions for frequently occurring phrases. For example "ILMO" can be written very quickly, and a word processor used to expand every instance to "In Loving Memory of".

Cleaning and Reading – Methodology:
  1. Clear any vegetation which obscures a clear view of a monument, look for hidden kerbing and footstones, and examine fallen uprights and crosses.
  2. Look for signs of lettering at the bottom of sunken and crooked uprights, and on kerbs.
  3. Attempt to read as much of the inscription as possible - some will be quite clear enough without further ado.
  4. Starting from the top, spray the surface with water. Gently rub away surface debris and lichen with a brush. More water will need to be applied in most instances. The most effective method is to spray water onto the stone whilst brushing, as water helps clean both brush and surface and provides a lubricant, reducing the likelihood of damage.
    Some guides say one should start at the bottom and work upwards; this should be ignored. Clean from the top down, as it allows the water to soak the lower lines of lettering, and washes surface debris away as you progress downwards.
  5. Dirty water, settling into incised lettering, helps to reveal the shapes of letters, particularly with horizontal memorials (flat ledgers or slabs), where mud or lichen-coloured outlines stand out better. Alternatively rub mud or chalk (best on polished vertical surfaces) across the lettering. Leave the surface clean when finished.
  6. Examine the wording from various angles. Worn lettering tends to become clearer when examined from one side rather than straight on.
  7. Use a mirror to reflect sunlight onto the memorial. Shadows are helpful. If there is no sun, try a torch. Some experimentation may be required to find the best torch-beam, but generally the more powerful the better.
  8. Obscure and worn lettering is often best read by two or more people together. Don't guess! If letters cannot be made out, it is best to record them as ? or - .
  9. Carvings which include lettering are often overlooked. They can be both difficult to make out and liable to crumble unless cleaned very gently. They, too, benefit from the use of mirrors and more than one interpreter.
  10. It may be helpful to read initials and dates on footstones first, as they might be clearer than what remains on a headstone.
  11. Lead lettering should be brushed, not scrubbed, as it is likely to fall off. Careful brushing with a soft toothbrush between the letters is best. Where letters have already dropped off, they might be at the base of the monument, and thus provide clues, as can the small holes left where a letter has come away.
  12. Hidden tablets: where there is one memorial tablet (smaller slabs laid above cremation ashes), there is often another nearby. Use a fork or old knife to probe adjacent ground, and an edging tool to cut the overgrown turf round the edge prior to cleaning.
  13. Use the Latin Dictionary and Bible to help decipher worn quotations. Or use an internet-enabled mobile device to look them up.
  14. Finally, write it down, record where it is, and where practical photograph it.
  15. Pictures say more than words, but if describing memorials, the National Association of Memorial Masons has a useful Memorial Specification Guide to materials and the names of the more common shapes.
Kerbs marking the edges of grave plots are vulnerable places on which to inscribe memorials. They are heavy and need considerable support to ensure they do not crack, sink or fall over due to ground movement, and are of sufficient height to ensure they do not become covered by soil-drift and overgrowth. A large proportion of those encountered in St Leonard's graveyard and Seaford Cemetery have suffered damage or near-disappearance.
When examining kerbstones the half-moon edging spade is very useful; it can be slid down the edge of a kerb without damaging the stone, where a slightly curved conventional spade would require far more care. The presence of a headstone or other memorial does not mean there is no inscription on a kerb and they should all be examined. Squared kerbs rarely have inscriptions on their exterior faces, but it is not unknown.
Chamfered or bevelled (ie sloping) kerbs often have writing on both ends and along one or both sides. Being low, kerbs are commonly obscured by grass: simply push the grass down with the edging-spade - there will usually be a slight gap into which it can be folded for long enough to enable the script to be read. Where a kerb is covered by soil, use the edging tool to cut out a "V" of turf, aiming it in at an angle, and pull out the soil and grass by hand with a trowel. (There is always somewhere nearby which would benefit from the surplus earth!)
The "advance" reader doing the clearing should check the middle of all kerbs, leaving a cleared length of about 9" to confirm it has been examined and found to have nothing. This can save later recriminations.
Grassy kerb
At the start of this kerb the lettering is clear enough, and only needs the edging tool to push the grass down.

Click to enlarge
Kerb tools
Edging spade, trowel, kneeling pad, sprayer and brush
Cleared kerb end
End of the same kerb, with soil and grass removed and lettering cleaned up
The final word
An inscription which had to be dug out and cleaned
(For unearthing monuments see Moving Stones)

Interpreting the inscriptions:   Although the primary task is always simply to record what is visible, the results will in many cases require some additional interpretation. For example, a rectangular kerb needs to have its inscriptions presented in a logical order so as to make sense. Some grave sites may include memorials to several family members, the inscriptions being added to the front, back or sides, or maybe as additional stones - perhaps scrolls or blocks - and each needs to be published in a sensible order. Sometimes this includes working out which line of text belongs to which individual, where it may not be immediately apparent.
Inscriptions are invented by the people commissioning them. They may have had little grasp of grammar or spelling, and it is not a stonemason's job to correct it. Hence numerous examples of full stops ending every line, of commas, colons and semi-colons being misused, and unfamiliar words and far-away place names being misspelt. If you, the reader, cannot understand what is intended, it is likely your presented result will also be unclear. Sometimes that is unavoidable. Most often a little thought will enable you to order and space an inscription so that it does make better sense, while retaining the original text(s).
Footnotes are a perfectly acceptable aid to clarity. A two-dimensional text cannot replicate the nuances carried by a variety of different lettering styles, spacings and placements on a three-dimensional monument. Noting that Mary was John's grandmother, Ellen's sister and Peter's mother-in-law is helpful, not an intrusion. Adding missing or illegible information from authoritative sources (eg Parish and similar records) in footnotes is useful, particularly where a memorial text has omitted dates altogether.
There is thus a balance to be struck between faithful reproduction and recording, and the interpretation and enhancement of the original as it now appears. The collected inscriptions are a part of someone's history, occasionally that of a far wider community.

Reading inscriptions in a churchyard
Extra light Left: Torches and mirrors, and more than one pair of eyes, make reading inscriptions much easier.

Right: Used with care, an edging spade can helpfully roll away layers of turf which often cover flat stones. A fork or old knife may be needed to find them!
Rolling back the turf
Overgrown grave
This triple grave plot had been completely overgrown
In some places a fair amount of vegetation may have to be removed to render inscriptions on headstones and surrounds accessible.

A triple-grave before gardening ... and after
A cleaned monument
After quite a lot of gardening
Man with tape measure
A long tape measure is useful when making a map
If there is no Parish or Council plan, creating a map of a graveyard makes finding particular graves and recording their locations much easier.

Including unmarked graves whose outlines are visible - as dips or mounds - may help in circumstances where more clues are needed to locate plots. As a general rule, however, they can be very confusing to navigation and are best omitted.
Examining a tomb
Two pairs of eyes are better than one at times
After spraying with water and using soft brushes to remove some of the dirt the reading of the inscription starts.

Some can be hard to unravel!

Tip: ensure the letter outlines are filled with water and look at them from an angle, so they reflect the sky. Where present, lichen debris gathered in the lettering (or some muddy water) also helps.
Tombstone with weathered inscription
This is where looking at the surface from different angles is needed
You will need to dig here
Sunken memorials
If you thought you wouldn't need to dig, have another look at where you plan to read inscriptions. The twin sunken memorial stones (left) will have to be dug out, raised, and replaced with earth holding them higher and the lettering visible. (Revealing sunken kerbs yields grassy lumps to help repack). The shield on the right clearly shows how far it had sunk into the ground. Fortunately these examples are not too heavy to lift. A memorial unearthed
Much hidden text can be revealed at the bottom of even small memorials
Rows of burials in the grass
Typical traces of old burials in a churchyard

Lines of unmarked graves often leave traces in the ground,
either as humps or dips.
Carved headstone
Some monuments are worth photographing and recording, even if the inscription is no longer fully retrievable.
And some monuments might not
commemorate a person at all!

Monument to a Yew Tree
this yew
was planted
a.d. 1861

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