Tips and techniques

Combating light and darkness upon stones

Often in transcribing a graveyard, you come across those areas where the sun is not shining or is not actually shining on the stone you wish to record. There are several ways to combat this, and we offer some tips and techniques here. Returning at different times of the day is most helpful, as different lights, such as evening light often show what you have failed to read during the morning and vice versa.

Using a cardboard tube as a viewing tube is another way.  One end is cut at an angle and you peer down this like a spy-glass. You will have to wiggle the tube around until you get just the right amount of light entering the tube.

Viewing with the naked eye, you also have to move around the stone trying to see which is the best light, as the direction of light often shows one part of a worn inscription, whilst another direction will show the rest.

Water! Spray the unreadable face of the stone with water and see if this makes any difference. Often this works straight away, often you have to wait a minute or two. If this does not work, then a gentle rub with a bristle scrubbing brush usually works wonders.

Two of these photographs clearly illustrate how we overcome the problem of reading an inscription when the gravestone is in deep shadow.

A mirror is being used here to reflect the sun's rays onto the memorial stone standing in shade. Notice how well this shows up the inscription in this dark corner.

Photo Colin Harris

technique of casting sun's rays onto stone face


This shows the result of the above mirrored stone.

Photo Colin Harris

result of the mirror technique photo

This cemetery was a pioneering site for urban nature conservation. In this particular case, Holywell Oxford, the graveyard had been recorded prior to allowing nature to take its course.

If a stone's inscription is in lead letters, then it is most likely that the ivy tendrils will have dislodged the lettering.

Ask someone in authority first, but ivy will die if cut back at roots, and left for a week. You will then be able to carefully prise the ivy tendrils from the surrounding letters, if any are left. Sometimes you are able to join up the small holes where the lead letters have been and using chalk, trace out the words again.

Photo Janet Keene

photo of gravestones left to nature

Some families were able to afford similar stones. This is a great help where some stones have worn and lost some of the inscription such as part of the surname, as this may be read on another stone.  Here are a row of 'family' stones at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire.


Photo Jill Muir

Stanton-Harcourt-Family Graves