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.

Sunday 13 October 2013

The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey - whose silly idea was it anyway...

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.

Saturday 12 October 2013

How it all began...

The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey was established some years ago now and has come a long way since its tentative beginnings. It grew out of an  idea that came to me whilst working on the medieval wall paintings at Lakenheath church in Suffolk. Whilst overseeing the conservation of the paintings, and spending way too many hours in the church, I noticed that the church contained numerous graffiti inscriptions – some of which were clearly medieval in origin. I obviously wanted to know more.

The problem was that there didn’t appear to be a lot written about the subject. Only one full length work has been written so far on medieval graffiti – and that was first published over forty years ago. Violet Pritchard’s ‘English Medieval Graffiti’ was a great work of its time. Violet examined numerous churches, mainly around her Cambridge base, and made many amazing discoveries. However, as Violet herself admitted, the book had limitations. With Norfolk containing over 650 medieval churches her book mentioned only two as containing early graffiti. Given the number of churches in the county this seemed a very small amount indeed.

Luckily, my first port of call was to talk to fellow church enthusiast – John Peake of the Blakeney Area History Society. I knew that John had been looking at ship graffiti in the north Norfolk churches of Blakeney, Wiveton, Salthouse and Cley.  John kindly invited me to spend a day with him looking at the graffiti in those churches. What I didn’t realise at the time was that that day would end up altering the next few years of my life.

What John showed me was simply amazing and opened my eyes to a whole new area of medieval studies. Blakeney church, where we spent the morning, was simply covered in early graffiti inscriptions, several hundred at least. Wiveton was the same. The real surprise was that neither were listed in Pritchard’s book. John's work on the churches of the Glaven ports was eventually published as a chapter in 'Art, Faith and Place in East Anglia: from prehistory to the present' (Boydell 2012) .

Following the day spent with John I began to wonder if this phenomenon was actually far more widespread than I had at first thought. If it was fairly widespread then why wasn't anyone looking at it? So, torch in hand, I decided to go and look at a few churches at random and see what was there.

The first church I walked into was All Saints, Litcham. It would be wrong to say that I chose it entirely at random though. The church was already known to contain at least one medieval inscription, the ‘Litcham Cryptogram’, and I was wondering if this suggested other inscriptions might be present too? As it turned out Litcham church did indeed contain many hundreds of early graffiti inscriptions – hands, faces, demons, text and compass drawn designs – and was actually one of the busiest ‘graffiti churches’ in the county. I wasn’t to know that at the time – but I was hooked…

Friday 11 October 2013

The project director's blog for the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey. Coming soon. All opinions are my own - unless I saw them elsewhere, took a fancy to them, and stole them for myself...