Monday 23 December 2013

The 'other' highlights of 2013 - East Anglia's sublime churches (the 'other' movie)

Searching for medieval graffiti inscriptions in East Anglian churches is never quite as boring as we I like to make it sound sometimes. Yes, there is a great deal of staring at the walls, shinning lights across the surface and trying to interpret the many thousands of markings we find there. A lot of the time it is frustrating. When the wall surface may be entirely blank, or so covered in markings that it is impossible to unravel the numerous entangled inscriptions that crowd the surface. Apart from the frustration it is most certainly cold. There is nothing quite like sitting in a freezing stone church for hours on end to truly understand the meaning of cold – and the advantages of thermal underwear. If you tend to work alone, as I usually do, it can also be lonely. You spend many hours muttering to yourself, holding entire conversations or even writing aloud sections of new articles. Sometimes swearing is involved. Is it any wonder, when a churchwarden enters a church for the third time that day to discover the same muttering individual staring at the walls, that upon occasion they have thought they were dealing with a mad man? Perhaps they are? A mad man who points at walls.

However, despite all the negative sides to graffiti hunting it must be said that they are far outweighed by the positive factors. The moment of excitement as your torch highlights a new and previously unrecorded medieval inscription. The moment the hairs on the back of your neck rise up at coming across a piece of medieval text that hasn’t been read for many, many centuries. The sharp intake of breath as you find an entirely new compass drawn design (yes, even they are still exciting), or coming face to face with someone else’s own personal demon. It’s all about that moment of discovery, the thrill of finding something. No matter what they tell you, that same joy is inside each and every archaeologist. They may never agree with the Indiana Jones or Lara Croft approach to archaeology (at least not the bits with high explosives – although they are quite open to the idea of helicopters) but they most certainly understand the emotions that drive them. Archaeology may well be a science – but it also most certainly a passion.
The other great positive factor to graffiti hunting is the opportunity to spend time in many of our great medieval churches. No matter how many guide books you may read, no matter how many websites you visit, there really is no substitute for spending real time in a superb medieval church. And I don’t just mean a flying visit of ten minutes or so here, but many hours exploring every nook and cranny of the building. There are the ‘great’ churches of East Anglia, the ones that turn up in ALL the guide books, and they are really quite lovely. The churches of Lavenham, Salle and Long Melford are undisputable gems. However, for me the real jewels in the crown are the lesser known churches. The ones that nobody trumpets as having ‘the very best’ this, or ‘the finest examples of’ that – but ones that are packed full of amazing survivals. Survivals that you are left to discover, and wonder at, for yourself. The rood screens, medieval wall paintings, consecration crosses, brasses, memorials, stained glass and font covers. The highlights of the very best that medieval craftsmen had to offer.

For me one of the finest of these relatively unknown churches is South Acre. Less well known (and showy) than its neighbour at Castle Acre, but a church that, for me, is full of wonder. From the outside it doesn’t look anything special. A typical solid East Anglian church. However, the moment you begin to explore the inside you realise that here really is something, somewhere, very special indeed. I’m not going to spoil it for you here – you’ll have to go and look for yourself – but I will just say this. Of all the many, many hundreds of churches I have visited it is one of my absolute favourites. It has everything. And so, with the hidden mysteries of South Acre in mind, I put together a very short film showing some of the ‘other’ highlights of the graffiti survey…


Merry Christmas Everyone!

And a happy New Year's graffiti hunting...

Saturday 21 December 2013

In the bleak midwinter...

Another year has passed by, the solstice is upon us and Christmas is only a bare few days away. From tonight the nights begin to get shorter, the days longer, and the prospect of Spring, sunshine and warmth begins to seem a distinct, albeit distant, possibility. Hard though it is to believe, in only a bare few months the first glimpses of green will begin to show on the dark, charcoal drawn, parodies of trees that now scatter the Norfolk countryside. But now though is a time of darkness. The bleak midwinter.

For the medieval population of any East Anglian parish this time of year would have been an odd one. The winter stores were, if the year had been a kind one, still high. The ‘hungry months’, the time when stocks ran low but the new crops had yet to bring forth plenty, were still ahead of them. And yet, for those who lived by the sun, the days were short and the nights long. Advent, and the celebrations that it culminated in, was a time of limbo. A time between. A time to quietly celebrate, and hope that the lengthening of the days led to an early return of Spring, rather than a prolonged period of ice, snow and death. It was a time to give thanks for what had passed and to hope for good things in the future. Sitting in the darkness and praying for the light to return. And so it had been for many long thousands of years; long centuries before the dusty desert story of Christ reached these damp and dark-wood covered shores. But in the darkness of the winter’s night, when wind and sleet slammed against the shutters, the Devil and his demons roamed abroad - and the vague threats of possible future starvation were accompanied by the just-as-real threats of eternal damnation and other-worldly suffering.

Today it is a difficult concept to grasp. That demons wandered the world, crossing it upon the wind like a vague miasma, seeking out the souls of the innocent and depraved to latch on to and drag back down to the eternal damnation that was the Pit. Obviously, in terms of medieval theology, it was never that simple. It was never that cut and dried. However, it is difficult to conceive of how the nuances and subtleties of medieval church doctrine would have been understood by the common worshipers of the parish. Indeed, given the number of parish priests accused of necromancy, sorcery and divination, it would appear that such subtleties often escaped those who were meant to be imparting that very same doctrine into the hearts and minds of their flock. Demons were real, magic worked - and it really was possible to find stolen property using a key, a piece of string and a copy of the Bible (and we are going way beyond Blue Peter here). When it comes to the concept of medieval religion, the past isn’t so much a foreign country as an entirely new world.

And yet that is a part of what we are trying to do. By staring at the walls of medieval churches, recording the scratches and inscriptions that we find there, we are trying to find a way in to the hopes, fears and aspirations of the medieval mind. We are trying to unravel the mysteries of medieval religion and belief. Not the book taught religion passed down by Popes and Bishops, but the beliefs and faith of those who actually stood in those pigment daubed East Anglian churches and prayed for a better outcome. Prayed for a mild winter and a better spring; for the safety of their friends, families and loved ones. Prayed for an end to darkness.
And yet, very occasionally, we do catch a glimpse of this level of belief – and it is on the walls that we find it…




Wednesday 18 December 2013

Whose history is it anyway?

Now let’s be clear here. The graffiti survey is a-political. It doesn’t support one political party or another. It doesn’t put forward a political view. It doesn’t say that this is right and that is wrong (excepting the odd occasion, but mainly with reference to cake). However, in recent months I have become increasingly aware that the material we are producing, the images we are putting into the public domain, are being closely followed by a growing number of individuals and organisations that appear to have an extreme right wing viewpoint.
I must admit that I have been surprised by this. Whilst many of the more extreme right-wing activists do tend to grab hold of any historical subject, clasp it to their bosom and push it forward as evidence of how great this country ‘used to be’, the idea that early graffiti would be of interest to them was a little surprising.
For starters it is graffiti. Although it has very little in common with modern graffiti it simply wasn’t something that I thought would ever enter the mainstream. It simply has too many negative connotations. For your right-wing activists graffiti is something that ‘yobs’ do down at the local bus shelter. It simply isn’t something you study as an aspect of medieval social history. Either that or they continue with the well worn (and wholly incorrect) idea that it was all created by bored choirboys (who were undoubtedly rather nice middle-class choirboys having a bit of fun). However, what really surprises me about their interest in, and use of, the subject matter is that, from my perspective, the one great potential of graffiti studies is that it sheds light upon the lives of the real ordinary people who lived and died in our English parishes many centuries ago. Not upon the landed classes (except at Troston), not upon the wealthy lords of the manor (except at Troston) and not upon the social elites (that’ll be Troston again) – but upon the lower orders – the commonality of the medieval parish.

For me archaeology and history is about far more than digging holes and searching through old documents. First and foremost it is about people. In the first instance the real appeal of studying early graffiti is the opportunity to gain an understanding of those individuals who lived and worked in the medieval parish - which is a real rarity. Individuals, particularly those from the lower orders, are rarely found in the documentary record as anything other than passing references. They certainly aren’t found in the churches. Indeed, if you walk in to just about any medieval church then just about everything you see – the alabaster monuments, memorial brasses and stained glass – all relate to the top 5% of society. The elite. Those who could afford to immortalise their memory in stone, brass and painted glass.
The amazing thing about the graffiti inscriptions we find and record is they have the potential to have been created by anyone and everyone. From the lord of the manor (Troston again) down to the lowliest commoner. Indeed, it would appear that many, many of the inscriptions we record were most probably created by the lower orders. At sites such as Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton it was the families who crewed the small fishing boats that ventured their lives in search of a meagre living who left us our stunning collection of medieval ship graffiti. At Wood Norton is was the retired and penniless priest who scratched his name into the porch he had spent a quarter of a century, most of his working life, gathering funds to build. At Litcham it was a family that scrapped an existence farming the common land and grazing sheep that left their names upon the aisle piers.
Many of these individuals lived hand to mouth, reliant upon the parish and the goodwill of their neighbours. They did no great deeds, fought no heroic battles, had no coats of arms and lived a fragile existence upon the very edges of society.  For many of them those brief graffiti scratchings in the parish church might be the ONLY physical mark they have left upon this world. Their only testament to existence. However, it was a society of which they were an integral part. Were they alive today then it would be those individuals queuing at a food bank, getting free school meals and help with their rent. Society, it appears, has moved on.
That I suppose is the real absurdity of all the right wing attention the project has been receiving of late. The graffiti we record often deals with real people’s hopes, passions and beliefs. It sheds light upon a lost lower order of the middle ages. It focuses attention upon a long dead commonality of the medieval parish. As many of the right wing activists have made quite clear, time and time and time again, these are the people who today they place NO value upon. Whom they dismiss as scroungers, layabouts and benefits cheats. Perhaps then they should consider taking a step back, and considering the long view, the next time they scoff at the idea of food banks for the needy… or perhaps, to them, the poorer classes are only interesting when they have been dead for a few centuries.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Medieval Graffiti: The Movie - 'Three years later..'.

It turns out that the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey is now almost three years old! It began as a silly idea and, some would say, continues in the same vein. However, as another year reaches its close, and I have to shell out for yet another years web hosting, I thought it would be a good opportunity to revue exactly what we have achieved in the last three years.
Well, in terms of graffiti we haven't done too badly. We have now surveyed over 250 churches in East Anglia, a couple of cathedrals, the odd medieval undercroft - and even the odd medieval house (and some were very odd indeed). We have surveyed and recorded over 10,000 individual inscriptions - less than 100 of which were previously known - and made a number of nationally significant discoveries. We've appeared on the radio, on the telly - and even made the Daily Mail (we aren't fussy - we'll take any coverage). We've also done the 'odd' serious bit of archaeology, and published a number of articles - some of which were actually quite well received. Oh, and we won two national awards, have given over 60 lectures and talks - as well as hosting events for Heritage Open Days and the Festival of British Archaeology. Not too bad. Not too shoddy at all.
However, despite all the great archaeology, and the great discoveries (Oh, and the Awards were very nice too!), the thing I will remember about the first three years has very little to do with medieval graffiti. What will really stay with me, I hope for the rest of my life, is the memory of the amazing people I have met during those three years. The churchwardens who care for the churches we visit, the members of the public almost, but not quite, too shy to ask why you are staring at the walls - and end up staring themselves, the vicars who enthusiastically show you the treasures of 'their own' special church. Most of all though, it is the survey volunteers. The Paul's, Colin's, Terry's and Pat's - and all the others - of this world. Those individuals who came to the project, often with no previous experience of archaeology or history, and who took it to their hearts. Who spent long hours in freezing churches, staring at the walls - and then went back and did it again the next week.
Three years later I am lucky enough to count those people as my friends. So, to all my volunteers, who now form the backbone of the surveys throughout England, this one is for you...

You did this!



Monday 9 December 2013

Graffiti underground: Fan Bay Deep Shelter, Dover

Last week was an unusual week as far as graffiti hunting goes. Most of my time is spent hunting around medieval churches for early graffiti. Not a problem as far as I’m concerned. A bit chilly at this time of year – but by no means a problem. However, I do also undertake commercial graffiti surveys of other historic sites. These are a wonderful opportunity to look at graffiti inscriptions from a little further afield and to examine graffiti from other time periods. A very useful exercise. It’s taken me to some very strange places over the last year or two. From the uppermost reaches of the attics at Knole Palace in Sevenoaks, to the depths of medieval undercrofts in darkest Sussex. However, even by my standards last week was a bit of an odd one.
As many of you may know, the National Trust have recently purchased another large section of the white cliffs of Dover. The site is iconic, by anyone’s standards, and the appeal and subsequent purchase of the site has now secured it for the nation. However, what very few people know is that the purchase also included a few added extras.

As one of the most heavily defended areas of England throughout history, Dover has a few secrets lying beneath its rolling green hills. Although today most of the white cliffs look to be open grassland, untouched for hundreds of years, this simply isn’t the case. In particular, during the last two world wars, the white cliffs were a maze of gun batteries, ammunition magazines, plotting rooms and underground shelters, and whilst most of the concrete and gun emplacements above ground may have been dismantled many of the underground workings still exist. The land newly acquired by the National Trust also contains one of these WWII sites – the Fan Bay Battery. Although little now remains of the gun battery itself, having been demolished in the years following the war, the Deep Shelter beneath the battery, one of the largest in the area, survives almost completely intact.
The shelter was designed to keep the gun crews safe from enemy action, but it was far more than just an air raid shelter. It is located many metres below the surface, in tunnels cut through the chalk, and originally contained offices, dormitories, a medical bay and access out to the cliff face – where two ‘sound mirrors’ were originally located. As the site had been virtually sealed off for many years the NT asked me to undertake a graffiti survey of the site to record all the WWII graffiti that appeared to be all over the site. How could I say no?

Well the first problem with a site like this is actually getting all the survey gear down there. The entrance is little more than a hole in the ground, in the middle of a blustery and windswept field, secured by a massive steel door. There are then three flights of steps to negotiate, each taking you many metres further underground, until you get into the deep shelter proper. And it is deep. Once down there it all looks pretty easy to begin with (apart from the fact that it reminded me of a bad video game – where zombie Nazis were liable to be lurking around every corner), and the first sections of tunnels are in superb condition. However, as I ventured deeper into the tunnels, led by project coordinator Jon Barker, I realised things weren’t going to be quite so easy. Further away from the entrance the nice steel tunnels gave way to simple tunnels cut into the chalk itself, held up with long since rotten pit props and old railways sleepers. Chalk from the roof lay scattered around and, as we ventured out towards the cliff face, I discovered both major tunnels to come to an abrupt end where the tunnel roof had caved in. A strange feeling indeed. Crawling along of your stomach, trying to get as far down each tunnel as possible to find a graffiti inscription left on the walls only 70 odd years earlier.

The survey took two days to complete. Two rather exhausting days lugging lights and tripods over chalk falls, keeping a wary eye out for trolls and zombie Nazis all the while (maybe it was their week off?), and actually produced far more in the way of interesting graffiti than any of us had first anticipated. In particular the distribution patterns were intriguing. Certain areas contained far more early graffiti than others, suggesting different uses and levels of access to various areas of the tunnel network. Sections near the cliff face were busy with graffiti, out near where the toilets used to be (no surprise there then), whilst the areas that used to be the medical bay and stores were completely free of inscriptions. Many of the inscriptions were by the men who built the tunnels, including sappers and pioneers from several different units (all recorded), as well as the gunners from units of the Royal Artillery who manned the big guns themselves. We had names, serial numbers, unit designations – all in all enough to actually track down they individuals via their service records. Sapper Hedge– we are coming for you.

The graffiti inscriptions from the deep shelter add a whole new dimension to the history of the Fan Bay Battery. Now, alongside the military and engineering history of this fascinating place buried deep in the chalk, it’s possible to catch a rare glimpse of the men who lived and worked down there during one of the most significant periods of recent history. When the shelter is finally open to the public, which the NT plan to do very shortly, I hope that visitors will find it all as fascinating as I did – and pause a moment to consider what those scratches beneath the surface really mean.
You really must go and visit...

Saturday 23 November 2013

Hunting ship graffiti and meaning on the coast...

So, I’m hunting for ship graffiti again. You’d think I’d know better after all this time. Apparently not. Yesterday was another trip up to the coast, to track down a few examples in North Norfolk that I’d apparently missed. It happens. Back to Cley, Morston and Blakeney to get some better images of some of the very fragmented examples. The idea is that by looking at some of the less well known examples I might suddenly have an insight into some of the reasons behind the creation, behind the intended ‘function’, of some of the better known examples. As John Peake once wrote, the three big questions with all graffiti are the ‘why, when and by whom’ were they created? For me the biggest question has to be why?
In this respect I suppose the ship graffiti has at least a chance, in my opinion, of answering that question. It is so distinctive, so set apart from all the other types of graffiti, that surely here we have a candidate for a graffiti type that might yet yield its secrets. Ship graffiti shows certain distribution patterns within a building, it suggests association with areas of spiritual importance, and also has the added bonus of being at least vaguely dateable, that lead one to believe, perhaps, an answer might be tantalisingly close. Devotional. It’s a word I use a lot in relation to many graffiti inscriptions. I certainly ascribe devotional aspects to many of the ship graffiti I come across. I guess it is my own shorthand for suggesting that these images had meaning, had intended function, for those who created them. That they were important to them at a fundamentally spiritual level. Perhaps I should replace the concept of devotional with spiritually important?
Therein lies the problem with much of the stuff we look at. Graffiti studies on the level we are looking at it is really like sailing the ocean without a map. Unlike just about every other area of medieval church studies we look at, be it stained glass, alabaster monuments or memorial brasses, the area of graffiti has no real established bibliography. No way markers. We have no research framework in which to work. We are groping blind through a whole new corpus of material and, each day, making new discoveries that turn what we thought we did know upon its head. Each day we are simply working upon the evidence before us but, like the sea and the sand, it’s a constantly shifting mindscape of ideas, perception and imagination.
So, back to the ships….
In Blakeney church we have identified distribution patterns that suggest that the ship graffiti was clustered around a side altar, most probably dedicated to St Nicholas – he that would help those in peril upon the sea. My thoughts were, and are, that these are ‘devotional’ images. That they are prayers made solid in stone. Exactly what that prayer was, hope or despair, we will never know, but they were prayers nonetheless. Am I right in this assumption? Only time will tell. The identification of similar distribution patterns at other sites certainly seems to support the argument. What is clear is that these images, these scratchings on a church wall, were important to someone. They were important to those who made them, and those who came after and respected them. They had meaning and function. They meant something.

But that is only half the story. The ship graffiti that we find so neatly laid out at Blakeney is found elsewhere. We find C17th ships on the screen at Salthouse, C18th graffiti ship adorning the doors at Morston and C19th ships scratched on the walls of North Repps church. Are they too all devotional imagery created in the same vein as the images at Blakeney? I rather doubt it. I doubt that they were created with the same intention – that they had a different meaning and function. The function had evolved. It had changed. But the question I suppose is how had it evolved? What did it now mean? So now we must develop new theories. Theories about continuity of belief and evolution of folk beliefs – areas with as few documentary references as graffiti studies themselves.
This, I presume to preach, is the problem with all archaeology. We interpret action as function and ascribe it a meaning. We add our interpretations to an individual interaction – and try to create an order from chaos. We hope to understand the unknowable. Whoever created the ship graffiti in Blakeney church did so because it meant something personal to them, on a spiritual level. Perhaps it was them asking for a safe voyage yet to come; perhaps it was an act of thanksgiving? Perhaps it was a memorial to friends and loved ones taken by the sea? An act for the long dead and possible futures that never happened. Sadly their intentions were never formally recorded, leaving us to speculate upon a meaning and function based simply upon the scratches on the wall. We develop theory from someone’s possible tragedy.

And so I went to Cley beach, watched the waves roll across the shingle, felt the spray misting my hair with salt, and heard the roar of the north wind – and pondered those myriad lost futures.


Wednesday 20 November 2013

The Churchwarden from Hell...

I spend a lot of time in churches. Hardly surprising considering what I do. As a result I get to see the ups and the downs, the best and the worst, of modern church life. As you may have gathered, if you’ve bothered to read any of the other blog posts, and there is no reason why you should, I’m not really much of a believer when it comes to the whole religion thingy. Too long spent as a historian I guess, always looking for the evidence trails, and an inability to take anything on blind faith. It makes belief and faith a difficult thing to come to terms with. Fascinating – but personally beyond my limited scope. As a result I suspect I am actually rather jealous of those who do have faith, and tend to take a great interest in those individuals who are willing to commit their time and energy to the church.

It’s really not unusual these days to hear, either in a newspaper article, on the radio or even over a pint, that the general opinion is that the church is dead. That the Church of England has had it. That congregations are dwindling, churches falling into decline and that, in reality, it’s only a matter of a few years before parish churches will be closing their doors for the last time. Well, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the case with some churches. There are East Anglian church buildings out there that have a congregation of two or three, are used for services only once every few months and remain locked and desolate for the rest of the time. However, they simply aren’t the norm. The Church of England that I come across tends to be vibrant, enthusiastic and pretty pro-active for much of the time (a little too pro-active when it comes to lime-wash upon occasion). Many of the churches that I visit are full of book sales, coffee mornings and children’s activity corners – where colouring and neighbourliness are as important as prayer and ritual. They are, in short, full of life.
This isn’t the result of any great groundswell of belief within the East Anglian church, but is simply down to one thing – the people. It’s the result of local vicars that care about their buildings, young mums who want a safe place for their kids to meet, retired people wanting a place to chat and drink coffee. Above all, it’s down to the churchwardens. Those individuals who give up hours of their time to look after these buildings, ensure that they are open, welcoming and as clean of bat droppings as is humanly possible. Doing what I do I have come across many dozens of these selfless and dedicated individuals. They may be a little reserved when we first turn up (“You won’t find any graffiti in our church”), but are soon enthusiastic supporters of the project that will do just about anything to help. They’ll turn up late in the evening to open a church for a night survey, go and borrow a ladder from a neighbour or simply turn up on a cold morning with a flask of coffee. They are the real treasures of the Church of England.
And then I met the churchwarden from hell….
It happened a few weeks ago when I was spending a day scoping churches in south Norfolk. All this really entails is me wandering vaguely around half a dozen or so churches, torch and camera in hand, carrying out an initial inspection to try and determine where all the good graffiti might be found. If a church comes up without any graffiti (a rarity) then it can get crossed off the list. If there is a bit present then it can be scheduled for a quick few hours one afternoon. If, as often happens, you find a church packed with early graffiti – then you just know that you aren’t going to make it to the pub for a few weeks.
It had been a good day really. A couple of churches I had visited had been real gems. The doors flung open, books for sale in the porch, happy ladies arranging flowers for a wedding, teenagers snogging and smoking behind the war memorial where they thought nobody could see them – and there had been a few good bits of graffiti too. Then I headed south to a church that I had been looking forward to visiting for some time. A big and often referred to Gothic structure slap bang in the middle of a big village south of Swaffham. The church is in all the guidebooks, famous for its medieval glass, magnificent tower and stunning memorial brasses, and from the photographs I’d seen the piers looked as though they could be hiding some really good graffiti. In short, it had potential. I arrived to find it magnificently situated in the middle of the village, rising like a great stone dragon above the surrounding houses, grabbed my survey bag and headed for the porch.
Then I saw it. As I entered the porch the main door was secured by a thick iron chain, held firmly in place with a padlock about the size of small melon. It really wouldn’t have been out of place securing the gates to a top secret military installation, scrap metal dealers yard or investment bankers pension fund. It was, whichever way you looked at it, a little excessive. Houdini had escaped from lesser fetters. This was certainly unusual as far as I was concerned. Most of the churches in Norfolk these days tend to be open and welcoming, particularly ones situated in the middle of villages, where dozen of local eyes can keep a wary lookout in case someone tries to run off with the hymn books. However, closer inspection revealed a polite notice stating that, if I should wish to gain access all I had to do was ring one of the churchwardens. All was not lost!
So I rang the first number on the list and, despite it being a weekday afternoon, the phone was answered almost immediately by a well spoken gentleman. I asked politely if it was possible to get access to the church that afternoon? I was answered by what can only be described as an extended version of the children’s game 20 questions. Who was I? Where was I from? Why did I want to visit the church? Had I made an appointment? Did I come from a good family? What was my favourite cheese? And I hadn’t parked on the grass had I? Assuming that I was talking to the churchwarden I went into some detail concerning my intentions towards his church (all entirely honourable – unless there was a particularly sexy rood screen) and outlined the aims of the graffiti survey. After about ten minutes of this he seemed satisfied that, as a grammar school boy and former blackboard monitor, I could be trusted to proceed further with the vetting process. “I’ll see if I can find the churchwarden for you then”.
He, apparently, wasn’t actually the churchwarden after all. I have to assume he was married to said churchwarden, and began to wonder if he always referred to his wife in such a manner (“Mrs churchwarden and I made it to the Maldives last Summer, don’t yer know. Lovely local natives, but damn all in the way of decent Anglican churches!”) - unless of course he was part of some hitherto un-encountered churchwarden security system being trialed in south west Norfolk. These things I pondered as I heard him stomping along through the house in search of the elusive Mrs Churchwarden. Indeed, it was taking so long I was beginning to wonder if he did indeed have her stashed in the attic, or in some remote outbuilding on a distant part of his estate. Finally, I heard him talking again, hand obviously muffling the receiver in the hope of not being heard, “Some chap wants to look around the church”, he said, “Not really convenient is it”.
Finally I was passed across to the elusive Mrs Churchwarden. The long and the short of it was that we had to go through the whole 20 questions thing again (“Favourite cheese – a good stilton”, “No, I hadn’t parked on the grass”, “I drive a Renault”, “Yes I am aware that it’s not a British car – but the Aston Martin is being serviced”, etc, etc). “The church”, explained Mrs C. eventually, “had recently been subject to an attempted break in, hence the need for the massive chains and padlock. In fact”, she went on, “they really didn’t like to encourage people to just turn up and view the church, and would far rather make it by appointment only. Today was all rather inconvenient actually and it would be far better if I went away and made an appointment”. Could I make an appointment I asked? “Not today”, was the reply, “as it was rather inconvenient”.
It was at this point that I made my fatal mistake…
Being a little stupid at the best of times, I made the mistake of pointing out to Mrs C, ever so politely, that locked churches tended to suffer more heritage crime than open ones. It is, after all, an established fact. Open churches have people keeping an eye on them, popping in and out all day, generally caring for them. Closed churches are the places where thieves can pretty much guarantee that they won’t be disturbed. That did it!  I was then informed that Mrs C. really didn’t welcome preachers at her church. Indeed, she had decided some time ago that “they weren’t going to open the church at all except for services”. Visitors simply weren’t convenient.
As I subsequently learnt, the padlock and chain has been in place since at least as far back as 2008. Visitors are firmly discouraged. Rumour has it that they might enjoy themselves a little too much and lighten the air of desolation that surrounds the locked and barred church.
So, here’s the thing Mrs C. You have taken one of the most beautiful things in Norfolk and locked and chained it against all those who would care for it. You have taken a place that could be full of people, laughter, happiness and joy and turned it into something that is cold, dark and empty. Your church, Mrs C, is broken – and I don’t just mean the lock. I do not doubt that you truly love your church. However, sometimes we all make the wrong decision, even if for the right reasons. Your church is surrounded by people, in the middle of the village, and yet you apparently have alienated even the neighbours – to the extent that they won’t (or haven’t been allowed) take an active role in securing it for the future – and themselves. If you really do love something, then you must also be prepared to let it go. Mrs C, it really is time to hand on the keys - to someone who can heal what has been broken, make better that which is failing and give life back to the place that has been the centre of your community for nearly a thousand years. If you love something – let it go. Sometimes it's for its own good.
Obviously, I'd never be crass enough to mention the village by name - but do keep an eye out if travelling through the villages to the south east of Swaffham. As it is, the graffiti survey will now be surveying 649 churches in Norfolk rather than 650…



Thursday 31 October 2013

Medieval Graffiti Survey wins Marsh Award for Community Archaeology, 2013

I am delighted to be able to announce that the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey has just been awarded the prestigious 2013 Marsh Award for Community Archaeology. This national Award, run in partnership by the Marsh Christian Trust and the Council for British Archaeology, is given to a community archaeology group in order to recognise and promote high quality archaeological work being carried out by local communities. The award was due to be presented to the group by Historian and TV presenter Michael Wood at a ceremony at the British Academy in London on Monday. However, due to the dreadful weather conditions, which left much of the country cut off from Norfolk (poor things!), the ceremony was cancelled.

I am sorry that I couldn’t tell all the volunteers prior to now, but I was asked to keep it all very quiet until it was officially announced. On a personal level I am obviously delighted by the news. This project began only three years ago, with no budget, no support and a few mildly crazy ideas. Since then it has grown into something that is making a real difference to both people and archaeology – although the ideas are still pretty odd at times. It has made a number of nationally significant discoveries, invented the concept of the demon trap and the spiritual land-mine and continues to generate media interest with every passing week.
However, the real strength of this project is the volunteers. The people who go out in all weathers to spend many hours in often cold and draughty churches – staring at the walls.  This award is really not a recognition of the project – but of the project’s volunteers and their continued enthusiasm.

One of the other strengths of this project has been its ability to cross boundaries. The NMGS has been a success simply because it has been supported by wonderful people and organisations with shared ambitions. Close working relationships with other organisations such as the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, the Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group and even our beloved Ragged Ramblers has allowed the NMGS to reach individuals that otherwise might never have heard of us. In return they have offered the group new skills, talents and enthusiasm.
Thank you all – and very well done. It has been a real honour working with you and I look forward to many more church surveys together. Congratulations.

Monday 21 October 2013

Fear, love and worry on the walls

When studying graffiti inscriptions the most fascinating aspect of the whole process is not so much that you never know what you will find – but that you never know exactly where each new discovery will take you. I’m not really talking geography here, but more the spiritual landscape of medieval religion and the medieval mind. Whilst I do spend a great deal of time tracking through the highways and byways of the East Anglian landscape (and I hate the A47 as much as the next man) I seem to spend much more time, particularly in recent months, in tracking the beliefs and aspirations of the medieval world. Not just glimpsing the demons, but understanding the where, why and how of their very existence to the medieval congregation. It is dirty work – but someone has to do it.
If we accept the idea that much of the church graffiti we come across is devotional in nature, and I think we have to here, then the reasons behind its creation become the most fundamental of all questions. Otherwise it’s like looking at a copy of the Bible, recording where it is printed, how many pages it has, what typeface is used – but never bothering to read what is actually written. Now I’m not exactly the most religious of people. Even the kind hearted, on a good day with a following wind, might (just) describe me as vaguely spiritual – but beyond that they really wouldn’t go. However, it is the certainty of belief, the miracle of faith, which draws me further into trying to understand the mindset of the people who created these ‘prayers made solid in stone’. I suppose the old adage is true – and that opposites attract.
For me that is where the true fascination lies. Whilst it might be archaeologically useful to draw up a typology of compass drawn designs (it was a quiet afternoon and I thought they looked pretty) all that does is take something that was probably deeply spiritual and significant and turn it into something that we can classify and pigeon-hole. We strip it of the most fundamental of its aspects. Belief and faith. It is all about people.

I find myself still doing it all the time. Most recently, looking at certain of the compass drawn designs that I come across, I began to note that in certain churches very distinct distribution patterns had begun to emerge. A very good recent example was Swannington, where almost all of the compass drawn designs are to be found between the first two piers of the north arcade. Literally all facing in towards the same spot. I have seen this pattern in other churches as well, or at least patterns very much like it. It occurred to me that, as we see at places like Norwich cathedral, these particular inscriptions were being created in this particular space for a distinct reason. That space, between the piers, had a spiritual significance to those who created the inscriptions.
In the case of Swannington church I believe that the compass drawn designs all focus upon the spot where the font once stood. The font itself has been moved around the church several times in recent centuries alone, but that position in the north aisle was, at least in East Anglia, a traditional site for its location. Areas such as these within churches, where distinct distribution patterns could be identified, I termed ‘geographical hot-spots’ (we also have chronological hot spots as well).
Now if we accept the idea that many of these compass drawn designs were created as ritual protection marks, designed to ward off evil, then we begin to see a logical system of belief behind their placement around the area of the font. Any infant being brought into the church for baptism would have been considered vulnerable to evil and malign influence, prior to their officially being brought into the protective folds of Mother Church. In orthodox theology their souls would have been in peril until baptism had taken place, and the added protection of the compass drawn markings around the area that this ceremony took place is a rational and logical act – that can be positively identified in the archaeological record. The fact that many of these designs look to have been gone over time and time again, etching them deeply into the stonework, also suggests that they continued to have function to members of the congregation for many years afterwards.
However, it’s just not as simple as that. What I can rationalise and theorise about from an archaeological perspective was actually the action of a human being; as full of fears, love, worry and passion as every human being is. Those markings were put there not as a rational and logical act, but out of fear for their child, out of worry, out of love. They feared the darkness and the silence, feared what it could do to them and those that they loved, and would do all that they could to protect what they loved. Suddenly the rationalisations of an archaeologist seem so very inadequate. So unfit for the task.

So what is left? Whilst we try and record the graffiti inscriptions in the parish churches of East Anglia we must never lose sight of the fact that these were created by real people who believed that they had a real function and purpose. They were important to them in ways that we can hardly imagine and can only just begin to speculate upon – and that they have continued to function in different way for the generations that have come after them. That, I suppose is the fundamental problem with the archaeological approach. We see it as the be all, and end all. The end of all things. However, the real key to understanding lies not with the inscription itself, but with the belief and emotion that placed it there, and the interaction it has had with those who came afterwards. A simple date carved into a church doorway is just that; a date. We can never know exactly why it was placed there at such a time. However, the real power of that inscription lies with the dozens of local people who, in the centuries that followed, ran their fingers across the inscription and wondered….
There I think lies the greatest and most beautiful of mysteries.



Sunday 20 October 2013

A revolution begins...

Although I spend most of my time looking for graffiti I suppose, for me at least, one of the most interesting things I come across really isn’t graffiti at all. Very occasionally, staring at a stone wall or the back of a rood screen, I come across something that I feel takes me perhaps closest to those people who actually built these elaborate and beautiful monuments to belief. The church builders themselves.
Architectural inscriptions are a rarity. There simply aren’t that many that survive. When we began the project the number of known architectural inscriptions surviving from the Middle Ages numbered less than twenty. The most famous of these, and widely documented, were those at places like York Minster and Wells Cathedral. Here the architects of the cathedral, or rather the master masons, had used deliberately prepared areas of the buildings as their design studios. These areas were most usually hidden away in places where the public could not go, and the work was undertaken on specifically prepared floors of plaster, known as ‘tracing floors’. Here they had worked out their designs, drawn up their templates, and created the blue prints for a monumental building that was to last for centuries to come. The tracing floor at York Minster looks today to be an architectural jumble of broken fragments of gothic architecture. Arches and curves intersect at obtuse angles, window fragments lie in the remains of a half century old arcade. However, these tracing floors were the real power-houses of medieval design. It is here that the master mason turned dreams and aspirations into a stone-built reality.

However, when it came to the more modest parish church, the master mason had none of the luxuries of a full scale tracing floor upon which to carve out his ambition. Many of the architectural designs I come across are far more modest in scale than those found at Wells or York. They are discretely located on flat pieces of wall, such as those found at Swannington, or located on the rear of rood screens, or the ends of benches. In retrospect it’s all rather obvious really. A workman arrives at a church to carry out building work and wants a nice flat surface to sketch out and plan his ideas. Why bother carrying a drawing board around with you when there’s the nice flat area on the back of the rood screen? Since the graffiti survey began we have actually doubled the number of these architectural inscriptions known to exist in the UK.

The first time I came across these architectural designs was in the very first weeks of the graffiti survey, at the beautiful and atmospheric Binham Priory in north Norfolk. For those who have never visited the site Binham is simply a joy. Today most of the site is in ruins, cared for by English Heritage and the Norfolk Archaeological Trust. However, the original nave of the priory church now acts as the local, rather grand, parish church. Although now sitting in a fairly remote spot a stone’s throw from the coast, Binham holds an important place in architectural history. The great west window of the church is regarded as the earliest example of gothic ‘bar tracery’ anywhere in England, built in about 1245 and pre-dating even Westminster Abbey by at least a decade. Prior to the introduction of bar tracery windows were built using a system called ‘plate tracery’, which in its simplest form was to just build a wall and cut a hole in it for the window. This meant that the designers were extremely limited as to how big they could make the windows without the entire wall collapsing. Bar tracery changed all that. The actually tracery stonework was designed to be structural and load bearing, allowing the creation of much larger and spectacular windows, and allowing light to flood into these buildings for the first time.
Although Binham is widely regarded as the very earliest example of this revolutionary new style in England, it has also become the centre of a sometimes heated debate between architectural historians as to just how revolutionary the west window was. The problem, you see, is that the window actually failed in the late 18th century and was bricked up. With only two earlier engravings of the window, both of which contradict the other, the argument has centred upon whether the window had four openings (four ‘lights’) or eight openings (eight ‘lights’). Although it sounds like a minor point to argue about it is, in terms of architectural history, a bit of a major controversy. Put simply, if it was a four light window then it can be regarded as simply an evolutionary step towards the style that was later perfected at sites such as Westminster Abbey. However, if the Binham window was of eight lights it can be seen as truly revolutionary. In recent years the eight light idea has taken a bit of a hammering, with one well known historian describing it as the ‘eight light myth’.
When I first began to look at Binham I was searching for the usual type of early graffiti that I’d found in the churches nearby. Ships, text inscriptions, compass drawn designs – just the usual. However, I noticed that certain areas of the walls were covered in very unusual lines and curves. These were on a far larger scale than anything I had come across earlier, being impossible to photograph using the usual raking light survey techniques. I was, in short, puzzled. It was really only on my third visit to the site that I gave them any real attention. One wall in particular appeared to show a real concentration of these markings. However, it was only when I looked closely at the very upper parts of the wall that I noticed that there was the clear remains of a quatrefoil which disappeared beneath fragments of a 14th century paint scheme. It suddenly became clear that I was looking at a very large scale architectural design.

It turned out that this wasn’t the only one in the building. For some reason the master mason at Binham had chosen to use the walls of the existing church as his drawing board, and I clearly had the remains of at least five separate designs – one of which was over two metres tall. Although none of them were complete, and several were too fragmented to even record in any detail, it was clear that at least two of them related to the west front and the controversial tracery window. What’s more, the main inscription did appear to support the idea that the window itself, rather than being the four light evolutionary stepping stone was actually of a revolutionary eight light design. At the time I really didn’t understand the true significance of what I was looking at. What I did feel though was something of a connection with the man who made them. He had stood in the exact same spot that I was standing, facing the same piece of wall, and started an architectural revolution. Nearly eight centuries later I was staring at his working drawings - at the very place that this revolution in style, design and church building had began in England. It was a humbling experience.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Medieval graffiti: changing our perceptions

One of the fundamental problems with searching for early graffiti inscriptions is that they are actually pretty difficult to see. Actually, many of them are really, really difficult to see. A lightly scratched line in pale stonework can, in normal lighting conditions, be almost invisible. It is only by shining a light across the surface at a very oblique angle, known as a raking light survey, that these lines and inscriptions suddenly become visible, with the shadows casting them into vivid contrast. It is the fact that these inscriptions have been all but invisible for the last few centuries that has led to them being largely overlooked as a medieval resource. However, this invisibility may well have also been responsible for their survival. What was invisible to the church ‘restorers’ of the 19th century tended to escape their loving attention.
In some respects this has led to a general misconception concerning these early graffiti inscriptions. Because they are difficult to make out today many people assume that this was the case when they were first made. They then, applying the twisted logic of misconception to the case, assumed that they were always ‘meant’ to be hidden away, to be something located in dark corners of the church, and that they were, like modern graffiti, seen as unacceptable or anti-social. Acts of vandalism. However, this just doesn’t appear to be the case.
The one thing you have to remember about English churches in the later Middle Ages, most particularly those in East Anglia, is that they would have mostly looked very, very different from the way they look today. The bleak and lime-washed walls that we see today would originally have been a riot of colour, with wall paintings and pigment covering just about every surface. High on the church walls would have been the images of the saints, the elegant depictions of parables and protection giving St Christopher. Above the chancel arch would have been the Doom painting, with one side showing the souls of the saved being lifted to heaven and the other showing the souls of the damned cast down into hell (always a good few tonsured heads or Bishop’s mitres amongst them). However, we also know that even the lower walls of the church, and the piers, would often be painted as well.

These lower areas of the walls weren’t really suitable for elaborate images. The damp rising up and down the stonework, as wet season changed to dry, would have made the images friable and fragile – prone to be rubbed off by any passing sleeve or doublet. Instead they were often painted with a plain pigment. Just a single colour. At places like Weston Longville the analysis of the lower parts of the nave walls reveals that they were repainted on numerous occasions – red ochres, blacks, yellow ochres – layer upon layer. The graffiti inscriptions in the church were often within these lower areas of the walls, below the formal paint schemes, and were actually incised through these layers of pigment to reveal the pale stone beneath. As a result the graffiti inscriptions, far from being hidden away in dark corners of the church, would have been one of the most obvious things you noticed upon entering the building.

This of course has a number of quite far reaching implications for how we think about the graffiti inscriptions. The ship graffiti at St Nicholas, Blakeney, is a perfect example. Here we have a pillar literally covered in graffiti, opposite a side altar, and close inspection of the pier base shows that it was once painted a deep red colour. The ship graffiti was created over a two hundred year period, at least, and each respects the space of those around it. It must, therefore, be assumed that the earlier inscriptions were visible to those who create the later inscriptions. This suggests that these little ship inscriptions, etched through the red pigment, were clearly on show for at least two centuries. During that time they weren’t defaced, they weren’t covered over – they were in fact respected by those who came after them. The parish priest, should he have so wished, could have had them covered over, painted out, erased – but it would appear that he didn’t. The implication is, that on at least a local level, these inscriptions of ship graffiti were both accepted and acceptable. The same is likely to have been true of many of the other graffiti inscriptions. They may not have been part of the orthodox teachings of the Church, but they were most certainly an accepted part of local belief and religious practice. The only dark corners they inhabited were those of the parishioner’s souls.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Ship Graffiti: For those in peril upon the sea…

Although I come across all types of church graffiti, from the ancient to the modern, and the unique to the mundane, I have to admit that I still have a really big soft spot for ship graffiti. Demons, curses and monsters are all very interesting (and add a cool, hip and trendy Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer like dimension to the whole graffiti hunting thing – which in all other respects is just staring at a church wall – but what the heck!) but there is something more intriguing, more real, about ship graffiti. Ever since I first came across examples of ships carved into the walls of a medieval church I have been fascinated with them.
I suppose to some extent it is because I grew up around ships and shipping. Norfolk is surrounded on three sides by water and the sea is an inescapable reality. If you don’t love the sea then, quite frankly, you are in the wrong county. Move to Leicestershire. Norfolk is a county that produced Admiral Lord Nelson (who apparently hated the place) and Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell (who sank half the British Mediterranean fleet by sailing it into the Scilly Isles – but we don’t talk about him) and it’s difficult to live within a few miles of the coast without finding yourself drawn to stare at the thin blue horizon.
Anyone who has ever spent any time dealing with seagoing ships will understand it when I say that ships have personalities. They have names, certainly, but each vessel also has a unique quality that sets them aside from every other seagoing craft – even those built by the same hands in the same boat-yard. They are all individuals. And the same is true of the ship graffiti.

The first time I came across ship graffiti was with John Peake up at the churches of the Glaven ports – Blakeney, Wiveton, Cley and Salthouse – in north Norfolk. Hundreds of little ships carved into the screens, piers and stonework of the churches. Each one different. Each one unique. Some were crude and simple outlines etched in the stone, whilst others showed masses of detail – rigging, anchors, banners, flags and planking. Each one a vessel of the port etched into the parish church. To the medieval inhabitants of those villages many of these would have been distinct and recognisable ships, identifiable by a name that we no longer know. Belonging to people they shared their lives with, crewed by friends, family and neighbours.
What struck me then, as it still does today, is a complete lack of understanding as to why these images had been created. The general idea, that they are found in coastal churches, appears no longer to be the case. The graffiti surveys currently being undertaken across England have found almost as many examples inland as they have by the coast, with examples now coming to light as far away from the sea as it is possible to get in central Leicestershire. Only a couple of weeks ago a very unusual painted and incised example, probably dating from the sixteenth century, was discovered at a church in Hertfordshire. Also noteworthy is the fact that all the examples I have come across, either on the coast or far inland, appear to show seagoing vessels. Not river craft, but fully equipped seagoing ships.
Why then are we finding images of sailing ships all over our English parish churches? Are they simply local people doodling images on the walls of the everyday items they see, or is there a deeper function and meaning to them? Well, at a couple of sites that I have looked at there are a few tantalising clues that these images of ships may have had a far more devotional and spiritual aspect than we give them credit for.

Blakeney church on the north Norfolk coast is packed full of early graffiti inscriptions, which include dozens of examples of ships. However, although the early graffiti is to be found all over the church the ship graffiti is all heavily concentrated in one area, the easternmost pier of the south arcade. This pillar is literally covered with little images of ships, each respecting the space of those around them and not crossing over each other. According to maritime historians the ships depicted were created over a period of at least two centuries. Intriguingly, the pier in question sits facing the south aisle altar and is exactly opposite a now empty image niche.
Even more intriguing is the fact that this very same distribution pattern appears elsewhere. Whilst surveying Blackfriars Barn undercroft in Winchelsea for the National Trust (also full of ship graffiti) I took the opportunity one lunchtime to go and look at the remains of St Thomas’ church in the main square. Here again I discovered early graffiti all over the church, and a good number of ships. However, as with Blakeney, all the ships were focussed upon one area in the church – the side altar and associated chapel. According to the church records that chapel was dedicated to St Nicholas, the very same dedication as the church at Blakeney. For those of you who don’t know St Nicholas, as well as being associated with children, had a distinct maritime association and, for many centuries, was looked upon as the patron saint of ‘those in peril upon the seas’.
So what are we really seeing here? It would appear to me that these images of ships are far more than idle doodling. Their distribution patterns and their apparent association with a maritime saint would suggest to me that these inscriptions are actually devotional in nature. That they are literally prayers made solid in stone. It doesn’t account for all the examples I come across, but it certainly appears to hold good for many of those found by the coast. The last question I suppose must be what type of prayer are they? Are they thanksgiving for a voyage safely undertaken, or a prayer for safe passage on a journey yet to come? As several people have pointed out, some of these ship images appear to show deliberate damage, begging the question as to whether they are prayers for long overdue ships? Vessels that never quite made it back to port, family and friends. The answer to that question, I guess, we will probably never know.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Demon Traps: a beginners guide

I was asked yesterday about the title of this blog (which proves that at least somebody reads it). What exactly is a ‘demon trap’, are they very expensive and are there any local stockists?
To understand the concept of a ‘demon trap’ it is first necessary to understand the world from which they grew. The medieval world was one of uncertainty and fear. Where a miasma blown on the wind could bring disease and death, and evil spirits roamed the landscape in search of vulnerable souls. It was a place where death and misfortune could strike without any apparent reason, and where the only protection lay in the arms of Mother Church - or the more down to earth fall back of folk magic and traditional charms. These ‘folk’ traditions (and I do so hate that term) may not have been part of the orthodox ceremonies of the Church but, based upon the evidence we see inscribed into church walls, were most certainly tolerated on a local level, and may well have been regarded as complimentary to the more orthodox beliefs.
Indeed, the concept of a demon trap actually has its basis in the Old Testament apocrypha. According to the legend King Solomon was given a signet ring by the Archangel Michael inscribed with a magical seal (the Seal of Solomon). The ring gave Solomon particular powers, but most especially it gave him the power to command demons. The seal itself is depicted in several ways in Christian, Islamic and Jewish culture, but most commonly as a Star of David or a Pentagram. By the late middle ages, at least in England, this symbol to command demons, and the belief in the way it functioned, appears to have evolved or morphed in a number of important ways. In essence, it was believed that the demons that roamed through the earth bent of causing mischief were actually rather stupid. They were attracted to bright shiny things and, should they come across a line, then their stupidity and curiosity would cause them to follow that line to its conclusion. However, should the line have no conclusion and continue repeating itself forever, then the demon became effectively ‘trapped’ within the symbol.
And that’s the general theory behind ‘demon traps’ (I’ll work of a ‘special theory’ later on). As I have mentioned previously, the largest proportion of inscribed symbols we find when carrying out graffiti surveys are what are termed ‘apotropaic’ or ‘ritual protection’ markings. They are symbols designed, at their most base level, to ward off evil. However, amongst these we get many different types of apotropaic markings – of which some of the most common types are these endlessly repeating patterns. Many are compass drawn designs, from simple circles and Daisy wheels to complex geometric design, and show clear distribution patterns. Others are knot-work patterns more reminiscent of early Anglo-Saxon art. It is argued that many of these designs were intended to function in just the way mentioned above. They were designed so that any passing demonic entity would see the line, be tempted into following it, and remain trapped forever within the symbol. However, the most obvious symbol we come across that can be considered to be directly associated with the idea of ‘demon traps’ is the pentangle or five pointed star – and some come with the demon already in situ.
On the east face of the chancel arch of St Mary’s church, Troston, is one such demon trap. Lightly inscribed into the stonework is the profile face of a wide mouthed and sharp toothed demon. Its tongue lolls out and eyes bulge forwards, as though screaming in anger or agony. Then, across the surface of the head is another inscription. Cut deep into the stonework, as though gone over time and time again, is a pentangle. It fits neatly inside the demon’s head, trapping it and pinning it to the wall for evermore.

Now many of these apotropaic symbols continue to be used on domestic buildings well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, I would argue that, within certain trade groups, they continue in use until the present day (just go and look at the rear doors of a west midlands narrow-boat and tell me what you see). However, although they continue to be used I’m not going to argue that their function and meaning has remained the same. Whilst they may have been thought of as demon traps in the middle ages their function has evolved. Their original meaning has been lost and new meaning, making them generally associated with ‘good luck’, has become associated with them.
The best analogy I can come up with is throwing coins into a fountain or well. It’s something that almost all of us have done at some point in our lives. Now, in purely archaeological terms, what we are doing when we throw a coin into a wishing well is exactly the same as those people were doing 4000 years ago at places like Flag Fen – where bronze objects, tools and weapons have been ritually deposited in water. As far as the archaeological record of material culture is concerned the two acts are identical. However, we can hardly argue that the meaning and function of the two acts are the same. Whilst we can theorise about the intended function of Bronze Age ritual deposition in water it is difficult to ascribe any other function than falling back on the old archaeological get out clause – and using the term ‘ritual’ far too many times. This is perhaps highlighted by the fact that, should you ask three or four people today exactly why they throw coins into a fountain, the chances are that you will get three or four different answers. Unless, of course, those people are archaeologists. In that case it could be as many as a dozen different answers.

Monday 14 October 2013

Curses at the cathedral

Just over a week ago I had the great pleasure to take part in filming at Norwich cathedral for a piece in the BBC property programme ‘Escape to the Country’. Having not really seen the programme I was a little unsure when they first contacted me about why they would want to look at medieval graffiti as part of a property show. Was someone interested in buying the cathedral? Surely not. However, the producer explained that they had a couple who wanted to move to Norfolk (who wouldn’t?) and each episode normally contained a five minute piece with the presenter showcasing something unusual about the chosen area.  They’d heard about the cathedral graffiti and thought it sound just the sort of unusual thing they’d like to feature. Well, unusual is what I do – and sometimes the downright weird.

We met at the cathedral early on a brilliantly sunny Friday morning and had to make a quick start as the weather was set to deteriorate pretty quickly. The presenter for this particular episode was Jules Hudson, and I soon understood why they had chosen to come to the cathedral. Jules, it transpired, trained as an archaeologist at Durham and was pretty experienced at all types of survey work. Indeed, some of his earliest TV pieces had been with the early episodes of Time Team, several of which were shot in Norfolk. It was, therefore, a real change and a great pleasure to spend four hours showing Jules the graffiti treasures of Norwich cathedral. As well as doing the usual walking up and down talking to camera pieces (why do they always do this?) we had a chance to discuss some of the weirder aspects of the graffiti – and it was great to be able to bounce ideas off another archaeologist, but one who came very fresh to the experience.

The graffiti of Norwich cathedral really is quite superb. We began the cathedral survey a little over a year ago now and I would say we are now over halfway through. It may sound as though we have been dragging our feet a little on this one, compared to our normal one day surveys of churches, but that simply isn’t the case. The cathedral contains many thousands of inscriptions. Exactly how many we simply aren’t sure of yet, but conservative estimates place it at between 2500 and 5000 separate inscriptions. The majority of these tend to date from the 17th through to the 19th century, but a significant proportion are clearly medieval in date.  Just about every type of graffiti is represented, with everything from medieval ships and prayers to animals and faces. However, the cathedral graffiti has also introduced us to an entirely new type of graffiti – the medieval curse inscription.

A high proportion of the inscriptions we come across are what is known as ‘apotropaic’ in nature. In essence these are ritual protection marks designed to ward off evil. At their simplest level they offer protection from the ‘evil eye’, whilst more complex types may have had a specific function – such as offering protection from demons. When I first began surveying for early graffiti I must admit to have been very wary of the whole concept of apotropaic markings. Archaeology is about ascertaining facts from the remains of material culture, and the whole area of apotropaic markings was just a little too close to things such as ‘folklore’ and ‘magic’ for my down to earth tastes. However, having surveyed over 250 churches I now find myself not only believing that such marks were meant to function in such a way – but actually looking at the thought processes and beliefs that lay behind them.

The main cathedral inscription took the form of the name ‘Keynfford’ (a Norwich family who appear in the Paston letters) linked to what appears to be an astrological symbol associated with the sun. However, the actual name had been inverted. Although such inscriptions would be instantly recognisable to anyone who has studied Roman or Anglo-Saxon religion as a ‘curse’, these were the first examples that we had identified in a direct late medieval setting. Having said that, there are a number of post-medieval examples that have been recorded, so perhaps we were simply seeing something that has continued for a very long time indeed.

What we discovered in Norwich cathedral appeared to function in pretty much the same way as the standard apotropaic markings – but reversed. Instead of trying to drive evil away these inscriptions appeared to have been an attempt to actually draw evil directly towards the individual named in the curse. Whoever inscribed this curse was clearly well used to writing, and had at least a basic understanding of astrology. The location of the Keynfford inscription was also pretty intriguing as it was located in an area of the cathedral to which public access would be very limited at the time of its creation. It all rather suggests that the Keynfford curse may well have been created by a member of the medieval religious community. Exactly what the Keynfford family did to annoy them we shall never know – but the curse has long outlived them.