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…