YOU may not think the rock that makes up your grandparents’ gravestones would shed much light on the history of Oxford.
But Nina Morgan and Phil Powell would say you are wrong.
Geologist and science writer Ms Morgan and Mr Powell, a retired assistant curator of geology at the University Museum, have studied six different cemeteries in Oxford – including St Sepulchre’s in Jericho, Holywell Cemetery and St Thomas A Becket in the city centre, St Andrews Headington, Headington Municipal and St Mary & St John in East Oxford.
They have been examining how different rocks arrived into the city – and said the variety of headstones is also a “wonderful resource” to learn about Oxford’s links with the rest of the world.
Ms Morgan, 60, said they were inspired to carry out the project – summarised in a new book they are in the process of writing – by a former colleague, Eric Robertson.
She said: “He used to give people impromptu tours of gravestones and sent us some of the research he had done, which contained quite a lot about Oxford. The book is about our visits to six of Oxford’s cemeteries, where we pick out about 13 to 20 gravestones in each one.”
And, she said, the types of rocks used show Oxford’s development in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Ms Morgan added: “Rock is very heavy to move, so early headstones from the 17th century or earlier in Oxford are all made of our native limestone, because it was close to hand.”
After the opening of the canals going in and out of Oxford, other types of stone were introduced, such as Banbury Ironstone.
She said: “And the other big change came when the railway came to the city in the 1800s. That brought all kinds of stone from places even further away, so you get examples of sandstones from Wales.
“In particular granite, which they had only in the Victorian era figured out how to inscribe, became popular.
“In St Sepulchre’s Cemetery you get a lot of granite headstones, which would have been the height of fashion.
“The interesting geological features we found are things like fossils and crystal formations, that tell people how to recognise different types of rock. The more modern the cemetery, the more variety you get, such as Headington Municipal Cemetery which opened after others.
“You get these wonderful rocks brought in from all around the world such as places like India and The Alps.
“It’s not the first place people would think to go to learn about geology, but they are a wonderful resource for people of any level of experience and are free to visit.”
The pair are trying to find a local publisher to adopt their book.
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