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A Simple Way to Read Old Tombstones


Old tombstones are often worn and difficult to read. Here is a simple trick to help you overcome this common problem. The next time you go to the cemetery take a bottle of water with you. Pour the water over the face of the tombstone. It won’t hurt the tombstone. What it will do, however, is to help make indents on the surface stand out more.

Basically, this simple trick will make it much easier to read the remains of chiselled letters on old tombstones. Give it a try and you will be amazed at how much it can make old letters pop out.

Technically, what is happening is that the surface of a worn and faded tombstone presents what is known as a diffuse reflection surface. This means that light reflecting off the tombstone tends to scatter and move in different (diffuse) directions. This makes it difficult for the human eye (or an image taken by a camera) to discern the pattern of faded letters chiselled into the surface.

When water is added to the face of the tombstone, the water will fill in the letter crevices and make the surface more reflective. Scientifically, this is known as a specular reflection. In essence, the application of water to the surface of the tombstone helps convert it from a diffuse reflection surface to a specular reflection surface, as shown in the image below. The lining up of the light rays in a specular reflection makes it much easier to discern the pattern of letters on a faded tombstone.

Diffuse reflection is shown on the left. Notice how the light gets scattered. This makes it hard to read the underlying letters on the tombstone. When water fills in the crevices (as shown on the right) a specular reflection is formed. This helps line up the rays of light making it easier to discern the underlying pattern of the chiselled letters.

This technique is particularly useful if you want to get good photographs of old tombstones. It is always a good idea to wet the tombstone first.

Now the next time you meet up with your genealogy friends you can impress them with your scientific knowledge as to why pouring water over an old tombstone can make it so much easier to read.

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