Report on a Training Session given by Margaret Burns (member of the Kent Family History Society) on Monumental Inscriptions.
Recommended supplementary reading: Pamela Burgess - Churchyards (out of print)
Margaret Burns’ explained her interest, shared by her mother, in family history that led her to develop her expertise in reading churchyard monumental inscriptions. The talk began with slides showing how monuments have changed over time from early, relatively crude, stones to more ornate carved examples (17th century onwards) and plain descriptive tablets of the Victorian era.
She also shared some maps (including the St Michael Churchyard in nearby Hartlip), and suggested some techniques used to tease out difficult inscriptions. Finally, she walked us around parts of the Lynsted Churchyard to help bring to life her talk through some fascinating observations. For example, how the ground-level of graveyards built up around pathways as more burials were added over the centuries.
Her illustrations were drawn from nearby (Faversham) and further afield (Cotswolds). Margaret emphasised the importance of clear records throughout a project, patience, and respect for the fragility of some stones and lichens when trying to read them. The written record can be found on headstones, kerbstones, footstones, monuments and are often supplemented with symbols (skull = death; cherubs = heaven; etc).
For difficult to read inscriptions we were shown a ‘shadow tube’ that alters the incidence of light in a way that can help clarify lettering under investigation. Here we see it in use by Bob Baxter.
Of course, sometimes inscriptions have simply been lost because they have flaked off (sandstone behaves in this way for example). Where lead letters have been used, they fall out. On limestone, rain damage can make it a very real detective story to make out the inscriptions - sometimes helped by family groups of stones. We are fortunate that Lynsted Church has kept its stones where they were originally placed - in other graveyards the pursuit of easy maintenance led to stones being stacked at the edges or in straight lines along pathways. This tends to look very contrived and you lose some of the context. So, making a full record now is desperately important for future generations.
And when you are in doubt or simply defeated by an inscription, you may have to visit old Parish Records that (in our case) are lodged in the Canterbury archives.
If you enjoy a good detective story and are attracted by the idea of bringing these “stone books” alive - tell Bob or Norma Baxter and join the group of enthusiasts aiming to help tell the story of our Church and its congregation over the centuries.