Transcribing Monumental Inscriptions
"... jolly memorials for when you pass away."
Gerard Hoffnung in 1958 'quoting' a Tyrolean landlord, during his Speech to the Oxford Union.

Britain has a wealth of genealogical information, inscribed on graves in more than 20,000 churchyards. The phrase 'carved in stone' conveys an idea of permanence which sadly is far from the truth. The majority of grave monuments are unlikely to survive in a readable condition for more than two hundred years. The effects of weathering, vegetation and vandalism combine to destroy the surface of the stone. Many stones are removed wholesale in the name of tidy, easily-mown churchyards, or when a church has become 'redundant' and the churchyard sold for other purposes. There is a national program to transcribe as much information as possible before it is lost. At the local level, this is organised through Family History Societies. Since retiring, I have become involved in transcribing monumental inscriptions with the Oxfordshire FHS and latterly have taken on the role of MI co-ordinator for that society.

There is a special camaraderie, amongst those who spend their time lying in long, wet grass in a churchyard, staring intently at a tombstone, in the hope that the sun will come out and reveal a so-far undeciphered name. It is to such people that this page is addressed. It provides some tips for would-be recorders, illustrated by photographs of some headstones transcribed recently at Cuddesdon in Oxfordshire.

Links to other Web Sites
Jill Muir, the previous MI co-ordinator, for Oxfordshire Family History Society, provides lots of useful information relating to MI recording, on her site at whilst Rod Neep, another experienced MI recorder, covers many aspects of the art on his web site at . Rather than duplicating these people's work I have concentrated here on some specific aspects of technique, which may be of help to others. See also the other pages on this web site which relate specifically to the presentation of MI transcripts in the form of a CD ROM.

Use of the Sun
With many old stones, the inscription has almost completely worn away over the years, and only the shallowest of indentations remains. Under most lighting conditions these are imperceptable. However if you are lucky enough to get direct sunlight grazing the surface of the stone, even the faint remaining indentations cast shadows which suddenly leap out at you and are easily read. The example shown here demonstrates the point. The portion of this early 18th century stone that is in sunlight, is readable (as shown by the magnified detail below), whilst nothing is visible on the portion that is in shadow. The obliqueness of the sun's rays may be judged from the length of the shadows cast on the shallow depressed surface created for the inscription. The angle of the sun is just right for only about 10 minutes a day, not allowing for the cloud which always appears at the worst possible moment! Stone lit by oblique sunlight
Which brings us to the next technique....

Use of a viewing tube
Many sources advise using a rolled-up cardboard tube, or similar, to view the stone, "in order to concentrate the eye on a specific area". Like a number of colleagues, I had tried the technique and decided "it didn't work for me". The reason is that the explanation about "concentrating the eye", is missing the point. The tube works because, like the oblique sunlight, it allows the only light falling on the stone to do so at a very shallow angle, from one specific direction. The eye then views the stone roughly square-on through the tube and so can see the shadows cast by the oblique light. For this to work well requires three things.
  1. The tube wants to be in contact with the stone, then just tilted clear at one side. Holding the tube an equal distance from the stone all the way round, lets light in from all directions which defeats the object. What we want is light from a single direction, to make good shadows.
  2. The eye needs to be in good contact with the top of the tube, to prevent light entering here. This light would hit the stone more or less square-on and so produce no shadows.
  3. The two previous conditions mean that the tube must be long enough for the stone to be in focus when the eye is in contact with the tube. Use a long tube, or remember to bring your reading glasses!
I find that a rolled-up rubber car mat works rather well. It is soft enough to conform well to the stone surface and to the eye. Being black, any light that does leak in at the eye-end will be absorbed and not reach the stone. It also has the advantage that when not in use for this technique it can be used for kneeling on. The only snag arises when you want to use it as a viewing tube and the grass is wet. Wet knees are but a small sacrifice for reading a challenging stone!
Without viewing tube With viewing tube
The two pictures above show identical portions of the same stone. The first is viewed unaided and the second is viewed with the aid of the rolled-up car mat. The letters "ACRED" of the word "SACRED" are clearly visible on the second view but can only be discerned on the first view with the benefit of hindsight and the eye of faith. (Yes, I know that the "C" and "R" do not show up at all clearly on the photograph, but they were clearly visible on the stone. Trust me, I'm a doctor!). One of the benefits of the technique is that by varying the angle of the tube slightly, you can compare the effect of shadows from different directions. Some features show best with light from one direction and some with light from another.

Reading Numbers
To the modern transcriber, numbers from the 19th century and earlier can be quite a challenge. We are used to figures in a very standard form, all sitting in the same place on a line of text. On older inscriptions you will find numbers extending above and below the line of text. Morover only a few of the strokes in numbers were deeply carved. Many of the lines which show a resemblance to modern numbers were very faintly carved and have been lost on most stones over the years. The stone shown here was unusual in that although it dates back to the 1840's, the carving has remained crisp. It contains examples of all digits apart from zero and is useful to show which clues to look out for when identifying digits on other more worn stones. Stone showing clear numbers
Detail of 1, 4, 6, 7, 8 & 9
Detail of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8 & 9

The enlargements show sufficient detail to identify the shapes of the numbers. Look first at the lower of the two. It is from the bottom two lines of the stone, which read

died Novr 28. 1843

The 1 is easy. Notice how the 2 is normally placed on the line but has a much shorter base than a modern 2. The only strong features of the 3 are the two right-hand vertical strokes. Compare this with the 5 where again there are only two short prominant strokes. In this case however, the upper stroke is horizontal and displaced to the left of the lower stroke. 4 is the digit which is most suprising. The only visible stroke, even on this clear stone, is a single vertical, slightly shorter than the 1 and displaced by half its length below the baseline of the text. On a perfect stone, the horizontal and diagonal sloping lines of an open-topped modern 4 are just visible, but on a worn stone, the downward displacement of the vertical line and the extra space to its left are the only clues you will get to distinguish it from a 1. An example of a 6 is to be seen on the upper of the two enlargements, which is from the lines reading
who died May 4th 1819

The dominant features of the 6 are the two curved verticals. The left of these is slightly longer than the right and extends slightly higher. The faint extension of the left stroke is just faintly visible and extends in a small circular point. On a worn stone the faint line is lost and the point is likely to be indistinguishable from the many natural "pock marks" found on stones. The dominant feature of the 7 is the strong horizontal about 3/4 of the way up from the baseline. Most of the tail is faint and will be lost on a worn stone. On this particular specimen the curled bottom of the tail is stongly visible. Notice how it is well below the baseline. On many stones this feature is less pronounced and like the tail of the 6 is easily lost on a worn stone. The 8 is similar to the modern version and is usually fairly easy to recognise. The dominant stroke is the downward sloping left-to-right diagonal but the opposite sides of both the upper and lower loops are also fairly prominent. Like the 6, the 9 usually shows only by its curved sides. In the case of the 9 it is the right hand side that is slightly longer. On the lower of the two enlargments, the point at the tip of the tail is visible, but there is no sign of it on the 9 of 1819 in the upper picture. This stone has no 0 but if it were present it would again be very similar to the 6 and 9 but having both sides of equal length. You can see how distinguishing between 0, 6 and 9 on a worn stone can be very difficult.

Copyright © Alan Simpson 1999, 2000 Back to index. Last Updated 2006-01-29