A new technique is being tested now, but it will likely be some time before the technology is available as a pocket take-along for genealogists as we trudge through cemeteries. When perfected, the days of shaving cream (a forbidden technique which destroys the stones), water bottles, mirrors, tracing materials and similar aids to reading weathered, dirty stones will be over.
Carnegie Mellon University scientists have developed a technique to make high resolution 3D scans of tombstones to reveal their carved patterns. A computer matches patterns to a database which reveals the words.
Scientists often find it difficult to distinguish between natural phenomena and man-made art works carved into stone, due to the build-up of algae and surface dirt.
At the moment, archaeologists are forced to do hand-tracing work with plastic sheets and to examine objects first hand in order to decipher obscured writings.
And sometimes, it is just impossible to read what lies beneath the dirt.
The new scanning method detects carved figures such as writings and drawings through 3D scans and computer analysis.
The research team has been testing the new technique at a 200-year-old cemetery in Pittsburgh, scanning illegible stones at Old St. Luke's Church to help identify all the names. Dr. Yang Cai, who heads the Ambient Intelligence Lab at the school says the technology is expected to reduce guessing in the field.
The group is also developing a digital cemetery for the church to help visualise the data. It will be available for internet browsers, DVD and interactive computer demos.
In addition to using the database for cemetery research, it can be added to other collections, such as geography, weather and archeological sites. The technology has practical applications in security and medicine.
See samples and read more here