Sunday, June 1, 2014

Before It’s Too Late–Preserving Inscriptions

Visitors to St Augustine always love to stop by the cemetery at night and peer through the fence, usually seeing nothing but the lights of the Varela Chapel and some dim forms of vaults in the otherwise total darkness. But a couple of weeks ago, they got to see human figures crouching over the vaults, moving beams of light along the surface of the stone…and probably giving rise to a whole new set of St Augustine ghost stories!


The actual mission was quite innocent, however. Tolomato Cemetery has some 1,000 burials, but only about 100 markers, many of which are not legible. Sadly, others are fast joining them in illegibility. There’s not much that can be done about it, except to preserve what can still be seen. And that is what we were doing, thanks to a UF student named John Bennett Lloyd, seen above. Bennett’s help was suggested to us by architectural historian Buff Gordon, who had seen him give a presentation on his work at UF. He is hoping to teach cemetery organizations and historians how to use this technique, which relies on free software and simple natural light. And meticulous patience…


The inscriptions on markers deteriorate because the stone deteriorates, mostly as the effect of weather conditions, particularly rain or freezing. While we have little trouble with freezing and thawing here in St Augustine, rain is certainly a constant. Over the years, the water seeps between the grains of calcite that make up the marble which is the stone used for most of the ledger stones. It dissolves the material between them and produces a condition known as “sugaring,” meaning that the stone gets a granular look, as if it had been sprinkled with coarse sugar or was even made of hardened sugar. 


This leads to the flaking off of pieces of the stone as the water penetrates between the grains or layers, resulting in what you see below. This is the ledger stone of the Elizabeth Forrester vault, the oldest extant one in the cemetery, dating to 1798. Needless to say, as the stone flakes off, so does the inscription.


Others have become illegible because the entire stone is weathering and rounding off, with the inscriptions gradually blurring as the water works its way into the stone and dissolves it. (If you want to know more about stone deterioration, the National Park Service has a great little manual on the subject, which you can find by clicking here.)

Such weathering is very common with ledger stones, the flat horizontal stones laid on top of vaults; headstones, which are vertical, suffer from it as well, but it seems most apparent in the ledger stones. The one below is not only illegible but is cracking from the level of deterioration it has reached.


We have many of the inscriptions recorded, including the names of the persons buried in the various vaults, thanks to work done by Charles Coomes in 1976. But even in the space of only 40 years, some of those indicated on his map have become much less legible, so we’re trying to preserve what we can.

How to do this? The rubbing technique used to be popular – and was used at Tolomato many years ago – but if done frequently it can have a destructive effect on the stone and, in addition, it doesn’t work very well with seriously deteriorated stones. But John Bennett Lloyd looked at this problem and decided to apply a little technology, both high and low. While people have often used photographic enhancement to improve the legibility of inscriptions, Bennett realized that natural light conditions in themselves improved readability in a way that could then be refined through photo editing techniques.


It’s slow work and requires one person to pore over the marker to find the best angles for the light while another person records the text or letters made visible. In this case, Bennett is working with his mother, Doris, who has an interest in genealogy and is familiar with the symbols and phrases commonly found on markers. Even before the photographic enhancement, this simple technique brought out some letters and words we had never been sure about before, and we made some corrections to earlier attempts at transcription.

Stage 2 is the careful processing of these photographs to enhance them as much as possible using photo software. This is also time consuming, and when Bennett finishes with it, he’ll show us the results. And, of course, you can be sure that you’ll see them here on our blog as soon as they arrive!


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