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Surveyors wearing high-tech backpacks containing an array of scanners are patrolling England’s graveyards in a bid to create a “Google Earth for gravestones” which is sure to become an invaluable resource for genealogists and amateur historians alike.
The company behind the venture, Atlantic Geomatics, expects to field four teams that can cover two to three graveyards a day.
After completion the project, which is being funded by Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund together with genealogy websites Family Search and My Heritage, will create a free online record showing the position of every memorial, building, wall and tree.
While the entire project could take up to seven years to finish, the first few churchyards should be online before the end of 2021.
To create the unique resource, each surveyor will use a £100,000 backpack loaded with five digital cameras, two laser scanners and a GPS tracker.
Tim Viney, the owner of Atlantic Geomatics, told The Times that the surveyors “get asked all sorts of questions” as they map the graveyards. “It does look a bit like Ghostbusters,” he admitted.
The Bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, a lead bishop for church buildings, said: “This impressive national project will make a huge difference to those researching family history, as well as easing the administrative burden on parishes.
“It will improve management of burial grounds and make information more fully and freely accessible than ever before, supported by additional services by subscription for those wishing to go further.
“It will soon be possible to visit almost any Anglican burial ground in the country and see in real time the location of burial plots. For those researching at distance in the UK or overseas, the digital records will place detailed information from churchyards at their fingertips.”
Burial records will also be digitised to help researchers find relatives who were interred in unmarked graves.
The project’s organisers hope that one day it will also include data from a national biodiversity survey that lists the rare plants and animals to be found in the 12,000 or so churchyards belonging to the Church of England.
A church press release says that together the graveyards are equivalent to a “small national park”.
As well as providing a unique online resource, the survey will also save parish priests a lot of time.
“When I was a vicar in Carlisle, our church was one of the oldest in Britain," said said the Venerable Richard Pratt, Archdeacon of West Cumberland in the Diocese of Carlisle.
“It had a very, very long history and we used to get loads of ancestry requests,”
“I tried to answer them all to begin with but soon discovered there was no end to it.”
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