When I began looking at medieval graffiti in Norfolk churches I soon realised that documenting it all, in any meaningful way, was going to be a lifetimes work for a single individual. There was simply too much there. Churches such as Litcham, Swannington, Blakeney and Marsham each contain many hundreds of individual inscriptions, some of which are extremely difficult and time consuming to record. Litcham took a total of seven visits before I was fully happy with the results of the survey, and there were new inscriptions recorded on even that seventh visit. I came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to enlist some help.
Having worked on the Wall Paintings project at Lakenheath church I was keen to explore the idea of working with volunteers and the local communities to establish a community archaeology project. At Lakenheath we had spent over £50,000 on the conservation and interpretation of one of the most important medieval wall painting schemes in the country. However, rather than just using the money to conserve the church walls my remit was to engage the local community with the church and encourage them to take ‘ownership’ of their own heritage. The thinking behind it was simple really – and just common sense. It didn’t matter how much money we spent on the wall paintings unless they were cared for and appreciated for the future. All it would take to undo all the conservators hard work was a single blocked gutter or leaking window. Those windows and gutters weren’t going to be looked after by a specialist conservation team, or even by archaeologists, but by the local people themselves. They had to want to ensure the preservation of ‘their’ medieval wall paintings.I wanted to apply the same principles to the medieval graffiti project. The inscriptions on the walls of the churches I was looking at really spoke to me of a hidden history of the medieval parish. It wasn’t a story of the lord of the manor or the local elite, but a story of the real people who had lived, laboured and worshiped in that building. In some cases those markings on the church stonework might be that individual’s only testament to existence. It was a real people’s history, and one that nobody had ever really looked at before. It seemed only fitting that they should be re-discovered by ‘real people’, rather than academics or archaeologists. In addition, the survey techniques needed to record the graffiti inscriptions were so simple that it really could be undertaken by anyone. If I could do it – anyone could.
Now the problem with establishing a community archaeology project was that, at the time, I really didn’t think much of the community archaeology projects I’d come into contact with. All too often community archaeology appears to be seen by larger institutions and organisations as a way to offer a couple of their out-of-work chums gainful employment, tick the box that says ‘community engagement’ on the grant application form and get themselves a little good PR. And the actual levels of community engagement for many of these projects were pretty dire. Whilst I’m not denying that pot sherds do need to be washed, it’s hardly a meaningful way for a volunteer to spend a weekend – and certainly won’t allow them to engage with their heritage in a meaningful way. I wanted the graffiti survey to be very different.
I wanted the graffiti survey to be a grass roots organisation. To work from the bottom up – and allow anyone and everyone to be able to undertake full surveys, make new discoveries and generally think of the survey as ‘their’ survey. Whilst I freely admit to sitting at the top of the heap, as Project Director, I am very aware that my role is to encourage not control. My interpretation of the discoveries are ‘my’ interpretations – and are no more valid than those of the volunteers who discovered them. Given the dearth of published works on the subject, and lack of academic study, their interpretations, if they differ from mine, stand every much as chance of being correct. Whilst my mother might be proud of the fact that I am considered one of the leading experts on early graffiti inscriptions in the UK, I have to point out that being a leading expert isn’t too difficult when there are only five of you studying the subject. And the next generation of graffiti scholars will include a good few who began as volunteers with the graffiti survey. That, above all else, makes me proud.
So we established the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. The budget for the first year was £15. I recruited volunteers, trained volunteers, worked with them to undertake initial surveys. I made mistakes in the early days, which I freely admit, and had to change the way I organised things on several occasions. But we got it to work - eventually. We currently have over 200 volunteers ‘on the books’, with nearly half of those involved in fairly regular surveys. We have a dedicated team working on a full survey of Norwich cathedral, where they are doing an amazing job of recording over 2500 inscriptions, and new groups forming all the time. In addition, the model we developed here in Norfolk has now spread. We have helped and supported the formation of new surveys in Surrey, Suffolk, East Sussex and Lincolnshire. And in all cases, it’s real people doing real archaeology. I’m quite proud of that too.