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Professor brings new life to old monuments

Technique using 3D software allows users to ‘read’ illegible headstones.



A professor at Mount Allison University is using 3D software technology and a simple digital camera to “read” illegible tombstones from the 1700s. The project by anthropology professor Grant Aylesworth is being carried out at Fort Gaspareaux National Historic Site in partnership with the New Brunswick Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture. Fort Gaspareaux is the oldest non-aboriginal burial site in the province.

The 3D photogrammetry software can be a bit tricky to learn, says Dr. Aylesworth, but the advantage of this new technique is that it doesn’t require the use of bulky, expensive scanning technology in situ. All that’s needed are good-quality digital images of the stone monuments. “We’re still testing different cameras, but I think any digital camera will work,” he says.

Dr. Aylesworth has been conducting an archeological field school for years at ancient Mayan sites in Central America. The sites have many stone monuments with eroded inscriptions, which led him to think about how to make them more legible. Meanwhile, he recently did some work in collaboration with the New Brunswick government using digital images to create 3D models of a Paleo-Indian site in the province. Then, this past academic year, Dr. Aylesworth taught a course in archeological methods where students documented a local cemetery using 3D photogrammetry.

“This reminded me there are monuments that we’re no longer able to read. So I decided we’d try this technique on some of these headstones.”

The testing, so far, has gone “extremely well – better than we thought it would,” he says. On one headstone that was completely illegible, the researchers can now read clearly the name John Wilson using the new technology. “We’re able to bring that out plain as day.”

The technique has garnered much interest from amateur genealogists who are eager to try it at other cemeteries both locally and farther afield. “We want to create a ‘how to’ manual so we can get other people out there collecting this data,” says Dr. Aylesworth.

“It’s a way of crowdsourcing preservation,” he says. “The message we want to get out there to people interested in genealogy and cemetery preservation is to take more photos, and that becomes the raw data that can be used to digitally preserve these sites.”

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  1. Murray Pletsch / June 9, 2013 at 13:12

    I read your item with great interest. As you can see, at The Canadian Gravemarker Gallery, we have almost 750,000 gravemarker photos and it sounds like this technology would be most helpful to us.

    Murray Pletsch

  2. Dave Hull / August 16, 2013 at 18:25

    Once a software is named and a procedural outline is developed there will be an army of researchers – both professional and amateur – that will use this tool to advance knowledge. I could have used it many times.

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