How and why grave monuments become illegible

The gravestone photographic resource project is an attempt to provide a record of grave monuments for future generations. This is important because over time many monuments deteriorate and become unreadable.

There are many reasons for this deterioration including:

early photo of grave at Hove, Sussex (20)

A good example of how grave monuments gradually become less readable over time are these two photos of the same monument but taken years apart:

Notice in particular how water/frost damage has lifted off part of the bottom right of the monument. Once this type of damage starts it usually progresses quite quickly until none of the original surface is left and the monument is completely unreadable.

This is a major reason why the Gravestone Photographs Resource is so important and why it needs more volunteers!

later (2006) photo of grave at Hove, Sussex (20)

Wind erosion

Wind erosion of gravestone monuments is often a very gradual process and is greatly influenced by the type of stone and its position relative to the prevailing wind.

The most likely types of stone to suffer wind erosion are those made from sandstone. Other much harder stones such as granite and slate are the least effected by wind erosion.

wind erosion at Little Common, Sussex (1101)
Example of wind erosion

wind erosion at Little Common, Sussex (1095)
Example of wind erosion

Water erosion

water erosion at Castleton, Derbyshire (6841)
Example of water erosion

Like wind erosion, water erosion of gravestone monuments is often a very gradual process and is often greatly influenced by the type of stone and its position relative to the prevailing wind.

The most likely type of stone to suffer water erosion are those made from sandstone. Other much harder stones such as granite and slate are the least effected by water erosion.

Frost damage

Like wind and water erosion, frost damage to gravestone monuments is greatly influenced by the type of stone. Unlike wind and water erosion, once it starts it can very quickly make a monument completely illegible.

The most likely type of stone to suffer frost damage are those made from soft layered stone such as sandstone. Other much harder stones such as granite are the least effected by frost damage. However occasionally slate which is a very hard but layered stone can be damaged by frost.

Besides actually damaging the stone itself, frost can also cause damage to those stones which have inlayed lettering. When water gets behind inlayed lettering and freezes it can then cause the lettering to drop out of place.

frost damage at Campsea Ashe, Suffolk (1742)
Example of frost damage

frost damage at Castleton, Derbyshire (6713)
Example of frost damage

frost damage at Campsea Ashe, Suffolk (1736)
Example of frost damage that has caused lettering to fall out.

frost damage at Castleton, Derbyshire (6827)
Example of frost damage

Lichen and moss damage

lichen damage at Barrowby, Lincolnshire (5908)
Example of lichen damage at Barrowby, Lincolnshire

Unlike wind, water and frost damage to gravestone monuments, it is not so greatly influenced by the type of stone. It is however related to the location and direction the monument is facing as well as the amount of pollution in the air.

Moss is most likely to be a problem in the more shaded parts of a cemetery especially where the monument is facing north. It is more common in rural cemeteries where there is little pollution.

Lichen damage is much more likely on older stones as it is much slower growing than moss. It is also more likely in rural churchyards where there is little pollution. In town cemeteries where there will be more pollution, lichen is not such a problem as the pollution kills it off before it can do any real damage.

Removal of lichen can actually result in more damage to the monument. This is because small holes will be left into which water will penetrate and in cold weather produce frost damage.

Ivy damage

Ivy can very quickly make a grave monument completely illegible by smothering it with growth. Often this growth can be removed without damage to the underlying stone. However if the monument is made of a soft stone then the roots of the ivy may penetrate it and then eventually remove the top legible layer.

Ivy damage is most often a problem in neglected rural churchyards.

ivy damage at Castleton, Derbyshire (6818)
Example of ivy damage. In this example much of the ivy has been removed from the main part of the monument. Although the damage to this monument is not great it clearly shows how the roots do begin to penetrate the soft stone. These small holes then make the danger of frost damage more likely.


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