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.