Gravestone Geology


Nina Morgan, who lives in Chadlington and one of our faithful band of bell ringers, has recently written a book with Phil Powell on The Geology of Oxford Gravestones (Geologica Press, £14.99).  Below she explains why our churchyards and cemeteries are such fascinating places!

Nina is planning a gravestone walk in the Cemetery in from 2:30 – 3:30 on Saturday 20 May. All wlecome.

Gravestone Geology

Cemeteries not only provide a peaceful place to contemplate and commemorate the dead.   They provide refuges for insects, wildlife, lichens and flowering plants, and are wonderful repositories for the study of local history and art.  They are also great places for studying science.

Because gravestones are made from a wide variety of rock types formed in a range of geological settings, a visit to a cemetery offers a wonderful introduction to geology and the other sciences, such as chemistry, physics and engineering, that underpin it. Many gravestones are made of polished stone, so reveal details – such as minerals and crystal features – that are not easy to see elsewhere.  Some demonstrate the textures and mineral composition of igneous rocks – rocks formed when molten magma cooled and solidified. Others are happy hunting grounds for lovers of fossils.


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White rims on pink feldspar crystals 
Photo by Mike Tomlinson


Some gravestones reveal structures that show how the rock was originally deposited. Others provide clues to earth movements and environments that occurred hundreds of millions of years ago.  For those interested in engineering, examination of gravestones can also provide useful information about topics ranging from weathering of stone to atmospheric chemistry, effects of pollution, stability and settling in soils and land drainage.

Travel through time

Cemeteries also document the evolution of transport systems and advances in stone cutting and polishing technology. While  18thC  gravestones in churchyards tend to be made of local stone, the range of rocks used for gravestones expanded rapidly during the 19thC, as first the canal, and later the railway, networks were developed. In the second half of the 19thC, the introduction of steam saws and lathes led to the more common use of hard rocks such as granites for gravestones.  Now that it is easier and cheaper to transport stone from all parts of the world the use of ‘exotic’ and decorative stones from places such as South Africa and India for gravestones is very common, particularly in modern municipal cemeteries.

Throughout the Benefice

FrontCoverScan copyAll of these features and trends can be seen in the churchyards and burial grounds throughout the Benefice. So next free sunny afternoon, why not take a stroll around your local churchyard or burial ground?  Books like The Geology of Oxford Gravestones (Geologica Press, £14.99, available from Jaffe and Neale, Chipping Norton; Nina Morgan (Rose Cottage East End, Chadlington, Chipping Norton OX7 3LX); or via the website ) will help you to focus your ‘geological eyes’.  You’ll be amazed at what you can see. Whether this inspires you to take up the study of the science of geology or not, one thing is for certain. You’ll never look at cemeteries in the same way again!


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Geologists Phil Powell and Nina Morgan inspecting a Banbury Ironstone gravestone                           in the churchyard at  St Nicholas Church, Chadlington



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