Tuesday 8 September 2015

Understanding medieval graffiti: Long lost souls peering over your shoulder...

So I'm here. Sitting in a church again. Staring at the dark monochrome of the walls, all whitewash and dark stained stonework. Above me I can hear the rain, a gentle persistent hiss against the lead of the roof. Even the bright glass of the windows is dull and opaque, longing for the kiss of sunlight. The wall is in front of me. It's always in front of me - stones bonded by the sweat of men and time. Just me and the wall. And so, as one does with an old friend and an even older adversary - I simply stare - looking for a way in. Washing light across the surface, watching it illuminate the darkness of centuries, bring to dancing life the figure of the demon to my left. Another sweep of the light across the cold stone. An intricate design of latticed circles leaps from the wall, design to trap the evil from a time now lost to memory. Time out of mind. Then there are the letters, degraded, worn and near indecipherable - a prayer for health by a soul whose bones have long ago wasted to dust? The light finds them all - and yet still I look for a way in. A way past the markings. A way past the scratching on the wall. A way that no light, no matter how strong, can light a path to; a way into the medieval mind.

The rain is harder outside now and faint drums echo above me. In a dark corner of the church an intermittent and all but silent splash on flagstones; a place where water, rot and time have finally found their way in. Above me fragments of paint peeling angels now weep real tears. Their bright colours temporarily restored for a few splendid, damp, hours - before they fade again even further into the past. And yet there is nobody here to see their glory but me. Me and the figures dancing in the light on the wall - and, I fear, I understand the demons on the stones far better sometimes than the angels on high. The demons on the walls are my friends. They are my way in. They are the key to understanding.

It isn't enough to simply record what we find on the walls. It is a start. No more than that. The key though has to be understanding what we are seeing. To try and find our way into the mindset and motivations of the long-dead who left these tantalising messages for the future. Without understanding we are no more than collectors of images; seekers of historical butterflies that we happily send to the gas jar and pin to a trophy board. Without attempting to understand what we find we are drawing out the life, the humanity, of every single simple marking. Hunting treasure for the sake of the treasure. Creators of catalogues. No more. What can we truly understand and learn from the name John Abthorpe carved into the tower arch of Troston church unless we know that he was the last of his line; a childless lordling whose name would die as his flesh corrupted.  What can we understand of the plaintive inscription in the chancel at Acle unless we understand that it was made during an outbreak of the plague; a time when the very fabric of the world became unraveled and desperation brought painted demons into the church?

And so we must, if we are to understand what we see, find a way in. Find a way to worm ourselves between the stones. To understand the mind that leaves fear and demons on the wall. I wonder myself, as I sit in the darkness listening to the rain, whether archaeology alone has the key. Can a profession that thinks in terms of a 'juvenile interment' rather than 'child burial' really understand what it means to discover the mortal remains of a once beloved son or daughter? Can those who strive to be seen as scientists, echoing the words of textbooks, really understand the humanity in what they view? I am, I know, being too harsh. Some of the very best archaeologists are those who have always let the humanity show through their work. Have always remained ultimately human. And yet, after the long years staring at the walls, the way in lies elsewhere. 

To understand what we find and record we must understand, or at least try to understand, the motivations of those who created these marks. These scratches in the stone. We must look at their church of incense and bright colours rather than the drab monochrome of today. We must hunt through the borders of their manuscripts, chasing the tails of grotesques and jousting snails. We must listen to their words and their music; try to understand the chant, the melody and the dance of medieval life. We must see the splendour and embrace the squalor - and feel the lost souls peering over our shoulders as bright light washes across the stones. To do any less simply leaves us sitting in the dark, listening to the rain...


  1. Dear Matt, this is by far the best comment on archaeology I have ever read! I've just stumbled across your blog and look forward to reading it all. Thank you for the gift of your insights and your research!

  2. Thank you for this beautiful post - so inspiring! I am writing a poem on the subject right now.