headstone detail

Is MICLAN a surname of Newfoundland? No! Who is it? The answer is below.

Reading Information From
Old & Damaged Headstones

The bignames.txt transcript of names for this project was generated entirely from photographs of the stones. When you look at photographs of some of the worn and damaged headstones on the StonePics CD's, you might wonder how names and dates were generated for them. The purpose of this page is to describe the techniques we employed to decipher the old stones so that you might apply them to additional research you do.

There are some fundamental things that you should know about the headstones of Newfoundland that are the foundation for reading otherwise "unreadable stones":

  • The rule of symmetry: The text on every line of the stone is centered horizontally. This information makes it possible to determine if a mark on the stone before or after a name is another letter or just an imperfection on the stone.

  • Names and dates are often followed by a period. Recognizing them on the stone will eliminate the likelihood they will be misinterpreted as something else.

  • The spacing between letters is uniform, and the spacing between words is uniform on any single line of the stone. The spacing may vary from one line to the next if long words or names were squeezed in. Knowing about uniform spacing between adjacent text is critical in recognizing the difference between "1" and "4" on a badly worn date. This photo illustrates how "1843" can be misread as "1813" if spacing is not considered:
    headstone detail

    Notice the outstanding feature of the number "8" in the photos above and below. It is the only number that resembles a backslash "\" as the stone wears away. Notice how easily the number "3" can be confused with a "5". The photo below has two identical images of "1835". The lower portion is amended with two vertical lines passing through the upper left corners of the tops of the "3" and "5". Normally, but not always, the vertical lines will also pass through the lower left corner of a "3" and the lower center of a "5". The horizontal bar that makes up the top of a "5" often slants upwards. It is important to check for additional samples of "3" and "5" on the same stone as well as on other stones of the same vintage for comparison purposes.
    headstone detail

  • Most lettering on old stones is in upper case, with the first letter of each part of a proper name a little taller than the rest. This is helpful in figuring our how many parts there are to a name. For example, when a name is squeezed onto a line, recognition of a taller "A" in the middle of "Mary Ann" is the defining difference between

    MARYANN   vs.   MARY ANN

  • Long words or names may be abbreviated or inscribed with smaller lettering, but they are never broken at the intersection of syllables and hyphenated for continuation to the next line.

  • Individual stone masons made all instances of the same characters alike. Compare unrecognizable characters on the stone with the shape and dimensions of recognizable ones for aid in identification. Be careful because lettering on a given stone frequently represents the work of different stonemasons who were summoned to add additional names as people died.

  • Names and words frequently abbreviated on the headstones of Newfoundland are: Frederick (Fredk), James (Jas), Elizabeth (Elizth), Thomas (Thos), William (Wm) and Captain (Capt). The abbreviations may vary somewhat from one stone to the next. Letters underlined in these examples are often superscripted and underlined on the headstone.

    The abbreviation of captain always precedes the name and is frequently found on Newfoundland headstones. If the stone is worn, the abbreviation can easily be confused as another part of the name.

    An annoying problem with the abbreviation "Fredk" is the inability to determine how the individual spelled his name. The longer form "Frederick" with an 'e' in the middle outnumbers the shorter form "Fredrick" 20 to 1 in the bignames.txt file.

  • There are trends in the way death information is recorded on stones that tend towards changing uniformly over long periods of time. For example, if you read 20 headstones carved around 1800, a pattern would emerge in the wording describing the deceased and in the way the other information is presented. An examination of 20 headstones carved in 1880 would show a different pattern of wording consistent with that time period. Familiarization with the typical wording for the relevant time period of a difficult-to-read headstone is helpful in deciphering it.

  • If there appears to be a lamb sitting on top of the stone, the grave is generally that of a small child. The child's first and middle names are typically found in large lettering near the top of the stone. The surname is often inscribed at the bottom in much smaller lettering as part of the parents' names in a phrase like, "precious child of John and Mary Manuel". In many instances you will find this information has worn away, is buried beneath the soil, or obstructed by grass.

The most important tools for deciphering difficult-to-read names are included in the download available at this website: bigname.txt and dig.exe.

When fragments of a name were recognizable on a stone during the photo transcription process, bignames.txt was searched to identify a list of possibilities. Very often only a few possibilities emerged, and additional letter fragments on the stone determined the final choice. If identification is narrowed down to two different name choices, and one appears in Newfoundland only once and the other appears many times, the final choice is easier.

When a portion of the stone has been broken off and lost such that the beginning of a given name or the end of a surname is lost, the rule of symmetry becomes very important in estimating how many letters are missing. Place a piece of paper on the monitor of your computer while displaying the photograph of the broken headstone to simulate the missing edge of the stone. Examine the other edge of the stone to determine the distance from the stone's edge to the start of the lettering. This distance will be the same for the missing side, providing a good indication of the number of characters broken off.

Another Search Technique for Names

If a search for name fragments in bignames.txt generates too many possibilities to be useful, look for clues in photos of other headstones. Begin your search on the same headstone then expand it to the entire region if necessary. Here is an explanation of the steps in broadening the search:

  • Look elsewhere on the same stone. Often an individual's name is repeated two or three times on a stone, perhaps first as the one who erected the stone in memory of their predeceased loved one, and later as one who is deceased as well. Four-sided stones with many names may have a surname for one person used as the middle name for another. Given names are frequently repeated from one generation to the next.

  • Look at the two stones adjacent to the one in question. Family members were usually buried close by.

  • Look at all of the names in a given cemetery. Family names in Newfoundland tend to be highly segregated and concentrated in small areas. Many times an unusual given name will become locally popular and be frequently repeated in a town or region. Read all of the stones in the cemetery to search for names of people who are mentioned as relatives or who erected stones, but who may not appear in the name index. You may be very surprised what you find.

  • Look at all of the names in a given town or region. The dig.exe utility is excellent for this task because a search can be performed for a given cemetery, town, or region (using adjacent CD numbers) and a complete list will be output to a text file on your computer.

Other Techniques for Dates

  • Do the math! Compare the relative dates of birth/death and ages of the individuals on the stone to derived realistic possibilities for dates that are difficult to read. The numbers "3" and "5" look very similar on many old stone both because of the way they were carved originally and the way the face of the stone dissolves away over time. If the unreadable 3 or 5 appears in the third character of the year, for example 1837 versus 1857, the difference is 20 years, an entire generation in time. Be reasonable about the math and your subsequent conclusions. Documenting both your known facts and your assumptions in your family history will make it more useful to you and others.

  • Compare questionable dates with those found on stones on either side of the one in question. Though this suggestion might seem silly at first, it was very helpful on this project. The technique tends to work better in large cemeteries where family plots were assigned sequentially. Most people did not bother to have a plot until the first family member died. Plots were typically allocated sequentially in such a way that they would not be scattered all over a mostly empty new cemetery. Consequently, the first year of death inscribed on the stone in one plot is frequently the same as the first year of death inscribed on the stone of an adjacent plot. Dates for subsequent family members added to the stones would naturally be chronologically later.

The "Look Again" Technique

Did you take the surname test in the photo at the top of this web page? What surname did you see the first time you looked at it? During the transcription effort, everyone at StonePics saw "Miclan", but we were unable to confirm it from bignames.txt. The next day we looked again and a completely different name leaped from the surface of the old stone. This is the stone for PHELAN, Mary Joseph (1875), photo ID NF069:STJ56-0312.

The picture works like one of those trick drawings you may have seen in a magazine where two entirely different things can be seen depending on what you are looking for. Now examine it again, first looking for "Phelan" and then for "Miclan".

There were similar instances throughout the project where one individual was immediately able to see what another could not. The problem seems to be that once the "mind's eye" becomes biased by an initial mis-recognition, it is difficult to see anything else. The solution is to look again later or invite others to look without first offering your opinion.