18th century tombstones deciphered with new 3D technology

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Tombstones at the Fort Gaspareaux National Historic Site near Baie Verte, NB.

SACKVILLE, N.B. – A Mount Allison anthropology professor is using new technology to preserve the past. Grant Aylesworth has begun a project, in partnership with the archaeological services unit of the Government of New Brunswick, reading “illegible” tombstones from the 1700s using 3D software technology.

The research team carried out their work at Fort Gaspareaux National Historic Site near Baie Verte, N.B. Aylesworth has been able to read previously illegible inscriptions on 250-year-old tombstones using 3D software models derived from photos taken with a regular digital camera.

“This new technology is enabling us to digitally preserve the old tombstones, important for many researchers, most notably historians and genealogists. More importantly, this has allowed us to bring back the name of a person that was lost to history, before we get to the point that there really is nothing left to read,” says Aylesworth.

Brent Suttie, project executive, archaeological resources with New Brunswick’s department of tourism, heritage and culture says, “This is a relatively new technology, but in collaborating with Mount Allison on its implementation, we can already see that it presents enormous opportunities for archaeologists and the public alike to start documenting and reconstructingthese monuments in a way that was not previously possible.  The fact that the technology is freely available and once learned, is rather easy to implement holds great potential for archaeologists, researchers, and genealogists. ”

The research team is working to standardize and simplify the process so others can document the thousands of other degrading cemetery monuments in the province. These tombstones, often considered illegible, deteriorate further each year.

So far, the results have found the name of an English soldier who served at the fort, but, given the historical significance of the localarea, Aylesworth is hoping to continue his research in the Fort Gaspareaux area and is planning to involve students in local field research this summer. “The 1700s was an important time in history for this area with the Acadian deportation and other significant events,” he says. “We’d like to expand our research and make this process more accessible to local communities and researchers in New Brunswick and beyond.”

Aylesworth teaches classes in North American and Central American archeology and anthropology at Mount Allison University. He has worked on many archaeological digs in Belize, Honduras, the USA, and the Maritimes, including the recent excavations in Pennfield NB, which proved that aboriginal people were living in the province more than 12,000 years ago.


Organizations: Fort Gaspareaux National Historic Site, North American, Mount Allison University

Geographic location: New Brunswick, Baie Verte, Belize Honduras USA

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Recent comments

  • David Batterson
    December 17, 2013 - 09:22

    All technology that can bring the knowledge of our ancestors existence and the footprints of their life is worth exploring and sharing . Please keep us informed of this method and how our local Historians can incorporate this process in our research of local grave stones.

  • John Marostica
    April 28, 2013 - 13:08

    I am interested in learning this and teaching it to the members of my Austin Genealogy Special Interest Group [www.AustinGenSIG.com]. AustinGenSIG is a member of the Computer Club of Ausitn, a 501(c)(3) organization. Let me know what I need to do to learn how this works so I can show others!

  • Dr. Jane Lyons
    April 28, 2013 - 05:45

    I have been transcribing gravestones in Ireland since 1996, last June we put 17,000 photographs mainly churches & gravestones online, they have been viewed over 138,000 times. http://www.from-ireland.net/photographs/ I began using my first digital camera about 10 years ago and I have many many photographs for which the inscription cannot be read. Would it be at all possible for you to put me in touch with or point me at a website which has some information on the technology used to read stones as mentioned here? Please and thank you Jane

  • E. Wayne O'Dell
    April 25, 2013 - 22:52

    Tantalizing! Please follow up with some details and a photo example. What special equipment is needed or special technique and software? Too many tombstones are weathering away.

  • Ronald William Dunbar
    April 13, 2013 - 12:22

    Any follow up to this would be greatly appreciated!!

  • Gerry Hill
    April 12, 2013 - 16:36

    And for those of us who can't get to the classes??? (Like said, what good does the good news do us?) More please!

  • Greg montgomery
    April 12, 2013 - 04:44

    This is exciting news. BUT! What is it with internet news, you could not show us one picture to show us how it worked, a before and after. It all sounds nice but without something to see it just seems like wishful reporting.

  • Jan
    April 11, 2013 - 22:25

    Thank you for the update. Difficulty in deciphering old tombstones is a problem everywhere for genealogists. It does not take 250 years here in Michigan to make a tombstone unreadable. The cold weather, soft stone, and exposure to atmospheric pollution (esp. near urban highways) takes a toll on the tombstones. We hope these new high-tech tools will replace our flour, brushes, and umbrellas in the cemetery. Keep up the good work.

  • Mary Knudson
    April 11, 2013 - 22:01

    Extremely interesting and exciting. What software are you using?

  • Fred Stuart
    April 11, 2013 - 20:02

    It would of been nice to see the original tombstone and a 3D one to see the results. Without an example this article is just speculation.

  • amateur genealogist in the DC area
    April 11, 2013 - 14:05

    Fascinating that they can do this, but where's the detail on the 3-d deciphering process? That would be the interesting part.

  • Wanda Taylor
    April 11, 2013 - 13:00

    This work is so exciting for those of us who are looking for answers from 'illegible' tombstones! How can we keep tabs on the project and know when a solution will be made available to the general public?

  • Jacqueline Auclair
    April 11, 2013 - 10:14

    This is a great project that is being done. Thank you for the time and effort in this endeavor. Hopefully, when the project is completed, a paper will be published showing the names that have now can be read again.

  • stephanie reidinger
    April 11, 2013 - 08:55

    I was wondering when you think that this would be able to be done in the public domain? It would be great if many could learn how to do this. Time is fleeting. Thanks for your work and knowledge. Stephanie Reidinger

  • Paul Morris Hilton
    April 11, 2013 - 06:15

    Many thanks for this amazing study. This will surly be of benefit to many families who like to research ancestry. I have a child's tombstone of our family - my Sister Anne who died at birth in 1935. The tombstone is made of White Sandstone & is almost unreadable. It fell of the original base years ago and was reset along with many other tombstones at the old Cemetery in Amherst, Nova Scotia. This will help so many others who are doing more research. Thanks for your assistance and also to the students who will most likely will be working with you. Sincere Best Wishes, Paul Morris Hilton, Harvey Station, New Brunswick, Canada

    • Char Mitts
      April 12, 2013 - 08:12

      Though I live in Kansas I have many ancestors in NB and NS that came from the states in the 1700s. I'm very interested in the story and the processed used to read he stones. Hope the average person will be able to use the process soon. Side note Paul Hilton we might be related, my mother was a Hilton, descendant of Amos Hilton of Yarmouth, NS.