Planners Use High-Tech Tools to Bring a Historic Headstone’s Inscription Back to Life
In recent years, the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office has established an inventory of all cemeteries and burial sites in the county. This program responds to two laws adopted by the Montgomery County Council in 2017 to help preserve human burial grounds. These significant sites are protected cultural resources that also provide a treasure trove of information.
Genealogists and history buffs love cemeteries for the family history they contain, but time and nature pose challenges. Some historic gravestones have become so weathered that it’s almost impossible to read them. New technologies have come to the rescue, offering ways to recover those lost inscriptions without damaging the stone. We have used photogrammetry at some of our burial grounds to help record and interpret inscriptions that are difficult or impossible to read.
Photogrammetry creates a 3D model from a series of digital photographs systematically taken from different vantage points. Computer software aligns the images in three dimensions and measures the distance between the subject and the camera based on the camera’s known lens parameters and changes in the camera’s relative position to the subject from one photograph to the next. Looking at a model rather than an original object that might be weathered or discolored allows the viewer to look past years of grime and digitally highlight subtle variations in the object’s surface.
Recently, someone contacted the county for help deciphering the inscription of a 19th-century headstone in the Crabb Family Cemetery, a Montgomery County Master Plan Historic Site in Derwood. Planning staff visited the cemetery and found the stone in question. “In Memory of Walter, Son of…” was easy to read, but the death year could be read as either 1839 or 1859, and the names of Walter’s parents were illegible.
The stone had deteriorated because of the material used to make it. Some gravestones are carved in highly durable stone like granite or locally produced Seneca sandstone. But in the 1800s, marble was a popular choice. People assumed that the beautiful smooth white stone would last forever, but marble is made from carbonate minerals highly vulnerable to weathering, especially by acid rain.
A 3D photogrammetry model of Walter’s headstone revealed much more detail of the remaining inscription than what had been visible to the naked eye, including the parents’ first names: Walter and Emma. A close look also suggested that the last name was short and began with a rounded letter, possibly an ‘O.’ Montgomery County’s cemeteries include many family names that were potential matches, from Oaks to Oyers. We know the names of many people buried in historic cemeteries across the county due to the work of genealogists and local historians who have meticulously documented headstone inscriptions. This information is compiled in works such as The Genealogical Companion to Rural Montgomery County Cemeteries and is often posted online.
Figure 1. The headstone for infant Walter (left) is worn beyond legibility. Photogrammetry (right) helped recover the inscription.
“Orme” seemed to be the most likely of these commonly occurring family names, based on the legible letters. A search of historical marriage licenses revealed that Walter A. Orme married Emma C. Griffith in July 1858, names and dates that corresponded to the headstone. As further confirmation, the graves closest to Walter’s belong to Sarah and Philemon Griffith, whose daughter Emeline was born ca. 1832. Connecting the dots revealed a sad story: Walter and Emma (Emeline) married in July 1858 but seem to have lost their first child just a year later in 1859. The full inscription reads:
In Memory of Walter Son of Walter A and Emma C. Orme Born July 7, Died July 25, 1859
This case demonstrated that modern tools like photogrammetry, paired with traditional historical and genealogical research, can further our understanding of burial grounds and their connection to broader community history.
In 2020, Montgomery Planning teamed with Archaeology in the Community to host a workshop that trained interested members of the public to take the photographs for photogrammetry. Our hope is to crowdsource the digital recordation of vulnerable headstones and family monuments in the county to help preserve the irreplaceable information they contain for future generations.