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...