Friday 25 July 2014

A fascination with choirboys... and the bits Wiki never mentions

Following on from the last 'rant' about the mass dials, or scratch dials, I thought it worth expanding upon a couple of themes I touched upon earlier. Well, to be honest, it's probably just going to end up being another rant if truth be told. I blame the BBC. No, honestly, I do!

Last weekend the lovely BBC (God bless 'em. Worth every penny, etc etc) ran a pretty big story about the medieval graffiti surveys. Despite the focus being on the lovely Lincolnshire survey we all got a good deal of feedback. Hundreds of thousands of hits on the websites, hundreds of emails, a card from my mum - that sort of thing. However, apart from drowning the start of my week in replying to lovely emails, it had a less obvious downside. It got people talking about medieval graffiti. Chatting on facebook, tweeting on twitter and generally talking about the subject in a way we rarely see. Hardly a bad thing you'd think? Certainly not. The only downside was to see repeated, time and time again, the same old fallacies, the same old clich├ęs and misconceptions.

It was bound to happen I guess. I'm generally too busy looking at images of graffiti to jump in on every debate going on, and being generally a technophobe whose idea of programming a computer involves an axe, I usually only get to see the debates long after they have taken place. Which rather leaves the field clear for the other 'experts' to wade in.

You've probably all come across them. The type that see a question unanswered and, having once read a book on the subject, or at least having thought about borrowing it from the library, feel they have to answer it. The type of person who, armed with a selection of 1960s text books, spends their spare time editing wiki entries - removing anything put there by recent scholars because "if it isn't in the book...". Does that sound bitter? Sorry. Actually some of my best friends are wiki editors. Obviously they are all academics who fill wiki full of complete nonsense just to keep their students on their toes (don't smirk - this happens. A good percentage of wiki entries are factually incorrect 'for a reason'. There is also a reason Wiki's logo is a jigsaw with bits missing... just saying...).

 Sorry, where was I? Ah, yes... and so it was last weekend I saw the old chestnuts well and truly brought out to get a good airing. In no particular order we have 'bored choirboys', 'crosses around doorways were made by pilgrims', 'masons marks were so the master mason knew how much to pay his men' and, yes you guessed it, 'the daisy wheel is an ancient sun symbol, proving that the pagan religion survived well in to the middle ages'. Actually I could name a few more - but will spare you this evening as I have a glass of wine and am feeling vaguely generous.

Now obviously I fully realise that this is MY fault and my fault alone. If we'd been getting our message across in a more efficient manner all talk of choirboys, excepting amongst certain specialist interest groups, would be a thing of the past. As it is we are putting out about five or six academic articles each year, have a book out next year and try and get our message out via popular media and events as much as possible. Last year I personally did over 35 talks, Colin and Pat also handled a good number, we attended over a dozen major events, two conferences - and we were all over the national and regional press - but this is obviously not enough. Terry's suggestion that we make individual home visits, armed with powerpoint projectors and laminated overlays, simply isn't practical, and Jeff's suggestion that we begin with the choirboys themselves is... frankly suspicious.

So here's the plan. We knock down each and every fallacy, every untruth and every misconception one by one. We'll pull the bricks out until the whole thing collapses, and then rebuild the story stone by stone. We aren't planning on rebuilding any great monumental truth, but what we can do is help people question the truths they 'thought' they knew, and hopefully, like the idea that medieval knights had to be winched on to their horses due to the weight of their armour, such misconceptions will eventually fade away. Eventually. No promises eh...

So where to begin? Well I guess the most obvious place is with the choirboys (steady there Jeff!). It is after all the story that probably gets repeated most.  People see graffiti in a church and the assumption is that was the work of those mischievous little chaps in the white gowns howling at the front of the church. A story repeated in church guides, websites and by tour leaders. Church graffiti equals bored choirboys. So why is this? Why is the assumption made in the first place and why is it so universal? Well actually I believe that this touches upon one of the most fundamentally difficult questions relating to medieval graffiti - that of legitimacy.

We view the church graffiti, even that created five centuries ago, with modern eyes and modern sensibilities. To us today graffiti is seen as something bad; something anti-social and inherently destructive. The bane of our underpasses (joke- I live in Norfolk) and bus shelters. Vandalism pure and simple. Therefore ALL graffiti is viewed in the same way; and church graffiti must also be destructive and anti-social. It certainly can't have been something that was either accepted or encouraged - and therefore must have been created illicitly by those urchins in white who carry the name 'choirboys'.

Well, to state the obvious, there are a few problems with this interpretation long before we begin to look at the graffiti in any detail. Firstly there is the dating of much of the graffiti - created in many cases long centuries before the church even had choirboys. Churches certainly had singers, and often groups of 'singing men', but boy choirs are actually a pretty recent innovation in all but a very few high status chapels. Secondly, if these early inscriptions were the work of choirboys then, at the very least, their schoolmasters are to be congratulated. Their knowledge of Latin, including the use of contractions and abbreviations, is excellent, their handwriting often superb, and their knowledge of astrology and geometry certainly boast a very high level of learning! Indeed, given the level of education and the obvious amount of time they spent at their books, it is rather surprising that they actually had any time to create graffiti (for those readers for whom English is not their first language this was a poor attempt at the use of sarcasm).

So if not the choirboys then who? Who felt the need to scratch their names, prayers, hopes and fears into the very fabric of their village church? Well here the graffiti itself begins to tell its own tale.  In the case of Ashwell, Ludham and Wood Norton it was the parish priest. In the case of Troston it was the lord of the manor. In the case of Lidgate it was, perhaps, a monk and medieval poet. In short, it was just about everyone, from just about every level of society. At Wiveton and Blakeney it was the rich merchants. At Cley it was a builder and his labourers. At Parham it was a musician and organ enthusiast. And at Stoke by Clare it may even have been the singing men... not the choirboys... but their ancient forebears who left their musical portraits scattered across the church walls.

And the reason all these people left their marks on the walls? Quite simple really. Graffiti wasn't seen in the same way as we see it today. Graffiti wasn't seen as destructive and anti-social. It wasn't frowned upon or prohibited. Given that the majority of the early inscriptions we record actually have a spiritual dimension, and many are clearly prayers, it would appear that these inscriptions were far more than just tolerated. They were both accepted and acceptable. As much a part of the everyday experience of the church as the mass.

So, next time you hear a church guide dismissing graffiti inscriptions as the work of bored choirboys, passing quickly over to look at the 'lovely' Victorian glass, remember that the problem lies with them. It is their views, their experience and their preconceptions that make it so. Now if they would open their eyes just a little wider, and actually 'read' what was written on the walls, then they, like myself, would realise that sometimes questions are far more interesting than answers...
Although if they will run about in cloisters...



Tuesday 22 July 2014

Time for Mass and kicking tradition up the arse.

The problem with spending quite so much time immersed in medieval graffiti is that, despite my very best intentions, it does tend to raise far more questions than it answers. What once appeared relatively simple and straightforward suddenly becomes, under the weight of masses of new evidence, highly questionable. Although, in retrospect, describing any of this as straightforward in the first place is probably pushing it a bit. Or a lot.

I suppose this is the same problem that faces anyone working in a relatively new area of study. A severe lack of reference points - and those that do exist, you discover, are built upon foundations of sand. If you are lucky. Whenever I give a talk or present a paper I always make a joke of the point that I tend to use the term 'the current theory is', or 'it appears likely', rather a lot. Sadly I'm not joking. Think about it. Here we are, faced with a massive new corpus of medieval material, with almost no reference points. There's only ever been one book published on the subject; and even the author herself admitted that that particular work was hardly blemish free. We are blindfold, in the dark, groping from one hand-hold to the next. Can it get any more difficult? Well, yes, it can actually. It gets worse at the point when you realise that the hand-holds you were using to guide you actually turn out to be as insubstantial as smoke. That all the 'taken as reads' haven't been, and that all the accepted wisdom actually refers to the same untruth or misconception just being repeated long enough and often enough.

So where do we start? At which point do we begin to pull out bricks and see just how many we can remove before the structure collapses around our ears? Mason's marks? Pilgrim crosses? Medieval board games on the walls? Nope. Let's begin where it all began. Where the study of graffiti inscriptions, in a rather odd manner, actually began - with Mass Dials.

Now just about everybody who has taken the time to wander around a few medieval churches will have come across these distinctive little markings. Also known as 'scratch dials', they are most usually to be found on the south side of the church, scratched in to a buttress, sometimes near the priest's door into the chancel and quite often inside the porch. The traditional interpretation is that these are simple sundials; designed to inform the congregation of the time that the daily mass would begin. They are also one of the few areas of inscriptions in church fabric that have received any level of formal study. Indeed, there is a whole sub-group of the British Sundial society that goes around and records these early timepieces - and therein lies part of the problem.

Putting aside the question of dating these inscriptions, where tradition states that the cruder the manner of execution the earlier they are likely to be (based upon absolutely no evidence whatsoever as far as I can see), the real problems begin to occur when you examine the traditional interpretation as to their use. They are, in many instances, very clearly sundials - designed to mark off the hours. However, there are rather a lot of examples that simply don't fit the pattern - and raise some really quite interesting questions. In the first place there are those actually found within porches - most usually carved into the framework of the south door. The traditional interpretation is that these were actually in place prior to the porch being erected. Then there are those on the north side of the church; where tradition states that the stone has most probably been moved or re-used. Then there are those found inside the church itself - where tradition states that the stone has again been moved or re-used. That, in short, is rather a lot of 'tradition' - and appears to be a very convenient way of avoiding asking some really quite important questions.

Just examining one particular site can highlight exactly how weak the traditional interpretation really is. Let's take one church - Worthing in Norfolk - a tiny and isolated church set in the Wensum valley. The church is an ancient one, with a round tower and many early Norman features, that has seen much change and alteration over the centuries. On the south side, now covered by a late medieval porch, is a most striking and beautiful early Norman doorway - into which are inscribed at least three mass dials. Yes, you heard me - at least three. Ok, so let us agree with a little tradition - and assume the mass dials were inscribed prior to the porch being built (see, I can be reasonable). Why then are there three identical dials? All appear to be to the same standard, and incised in a similar manner - so why do you need more than one? What are they doing? Showing the time in London, Rome and Jerusalem? I think not.

And it isn't just at Worthing that these supposedly simple dials don't fit in to the traditional story. I see too many examples of multiple dials, dials set on the north side of the church, or even inside, to believe that all of these are re-used or moved bits of stone. The weight of actual observed evidence would appear to be leaning against a convenient tradition. Yes, many of these are simple time-keepers located in the right place - but many, many others don't fit the pattern.

So what is going on? What was the function of these familiar markings on our medieval churches? Well, to be honest, I really can't say. I can make a few suggestions based upon what I have observed, but I don't have any hard and fast answers. Not yet anyway. All I can say is that the traditional and accepted ideas associated with them are no longer, if you'll excuse the pun, set in stone. We have to throw tradition out of the tracery window and begin to look at the actual evidence with fresh eyes. We have to begin to question what has remained unquestionable and no longer accept 'accepted wisdom'.

And don't even get me started on pilgrim crosses...

Thursday 10 July 2014

Seahenge: diggers, druids and a long forgotten past...

So Seahenge has a sister. The Bronze Age timber circle found on the North Norfolk coast, and excavated amongst scenes of tense confrontation, wasn’t alone. For those of you in the UK the news has been spread all over various media platforms for the last few weeks. Those in Norfolk trumpeting the fact that yet another major archaeological discovery has been made in the region (they’d have appropriated the Staffordshire hoard given half a chance) where the past forms such an integral part of the present. The new timber circle was ‘discovered’ only a short distance from the original circle and this time, much to everyone’s relief, it is to be left to gradually erode away and fall prey to the cycle of erosion and renewal that makes the North Norfolk coast the dynamic landscape that it is.

Now I’ll let you all in on a little secret. The circle isn’t actually a new discovery at all. The timber trunks at its centre, flattened on one face, were clearly visible at the time that the original circle was excavated, and sections of the outer palisade had been exposed to the air only a few months before the original Seahenge became the centre of such a media driven confrontation. In short, we’ve known it was there, along with a whole range of other artefacts, for nearly two decades. How do I know this you may well ask? I could after all just be saying this now to look incredibly wise and intelligent after the fact – nodding sagely when anyone mentions timber circles eroding from the peat beds of Holme. What the hell does the graffiti guy know about Bronze Age Norfolk? Well, here I’ll let you in to another little secret – which isn’t really a secret – just part of my past I’ve tried (with little success) to put behind me.

You see, back at the end of the last millennia, I wrote a little book – Seahenge: a contemporary chronicle – that documented the whole sorry story from the initial discovery, through the media shit-storm to the eventual excavation and confrontation. It wasn’t a great book. One of the main drawbacks was that I knew absolutely sod all about Bronze Age archaeology. I’ve always been a medievalist at heart, and my knowledge of the Bronze Age was largely confined to generations old books handed down from Wiltshire archaeologist A. D. Passmore (but that’s another story). However, putting aside the dodgy archaeology, the book turned out to be rather an interesting exercise in the study of archaeology and conflict – not something you usually get to study in this country.

For those of you who didn’t follow the original story, or where busy being born or potty trained at about that time, the basics are this. Back in the late 1990s a local man, John Lorimer, became fascinated with various timber structures that keep appearing and disappearing on the wide open stretches of Holme beach. John wasn’t an archaeologist, but he was fascinated by history and recognised that these structures were unusual. After the discovery of a Bronze Age axe head nearby John reported all his discoveries and findings to the local archaeology unit. Archaeologists came out to investigate and the general consensus was that the timber monuments were early – most probably Bronze Age. The decision was taken to record the site – but then leave it to gradually erode away with the passing years and tides. So this is what happened. Limited excavation took place, samples were taken for dendrochronological dating, and a short press release was issued. Local radio covered it briefly. Everyone agreed it was a fascinating site – and back to the site hut for a cuppa!

And then the storm broke! Michael McCarthy, the environmental correspondent for the Independent stumbled across the story and decided to follow it up with a bit of background research – in particular with a chat to one of Britain’s leading experts on the Bronze Age, Francis Pryor. Pryor described the discovery to McCarthy as one of “the most extraordinary archaeological discoveries” he had ever seen and that “it must be preserved”. The little story that had filled a few minutes air time on Radio Norfolk suddenly found itself splashed all over a national newspaper (one of the ones that people tended to believe) under the title ‘Shifting Sands reveal Stonehenge of the Sea’. Well you can imagine what happened next. Every other newspaper and TV news channel rushed up to the Norfolk coast to catch a glimpse of this ‘internationally important’ discovery – largely to genuine disappointment by the journalists that it was so small and rather uninspiring. However, that didn’t stop the trickle of news reports which, egged on by a campaign by a local regional newspaper, soon became a flood – and the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’ soon became ‘Seahenge’. *

And questions were being asked too. Well, one question in particular. If this site was so important, if it really was of international significance, then why wasn’t it being excavated? Why wasn’t it being saved for the nation? Who had made the decision to let it simply slide into the waves and be lost forever? Distinct signs of embarrassed mumbling, red faces and shuffling of feet amongst certain local and English Heritage archaeologists took place. Finally, pressured by the media, the decision was reversed – and it was decided that Seahenge would be fully excavated and preserved forever for a grateful population! A mistake had been made – but now it was to be rapidly rectified. What could possibly go wrong with that???

The trouble of course is that tides of opinion, like the real waters of the coast, ebb and flow. When the decision was announced that the site was to be excavated, and the timbers removed from Holme beach, the media storm of the previous month paled into insignificance when compared to the storm of outrage and protest that suddenly crashed upon the archaeological world. The local people of North Norfolk, and a large section of the New Age movement (as well as the odd archaeologist), simply didn’t want this to happen – and were prepared to stop it by any means possible. What was worse was that the local media, once so supportive of the excavation idea, read the way public opinion was leaning and began to quietly drift away from the archaeological side. After all, the New Age druids, chanting on the beach and blowing trumpets across the central oak, was a far better story than a simple archaeological excavation.

The senior archaeologists, isolated and pressured, then went on to make a catalogue of media and public relations errors that are actually too numerous to repeat. Court cases, exclusion orders and media own goals cast them in a pretty poor light. The locals were even describing senior archaeologists (not from Norfolk I might add) as bully-boys. Not too many miles from the truth. Perhaps the best example that I came across was when a certain senior EH archaeologist called a meeting of all sides in the village hall, to supposedly discuss the future plans for the site – and whilst all the protestors were gathered there used the opportunity to move all the heavy equipment down to the beach! What was worse was what was being experienced by the actual diggers on the site. None of the mistakes had been theirs and yet they were subject to intense pressure and, it must be said, intimidation and hostility each and every day. They were, after all, just trying to do their (badly paid) jobs. Particularly difficult as archaeologists tend to view themselves as the good guys (and girls - well mostly girls these days) used to fighting to protect our heritage. To find themselves cast into the role of villain really didn't sit too well with most of them. They were used to having the public on their side - not in their face. All in all it was a superb case study of how not to handle an archaeological excavation in the face of public hostility. Oh, and don’t even TALK about the trauma of Time Team getting involved!

So was it right to excavate the original Seahenge monument? Well, looking back after nearly 20 years there were, and still are, arguments for and against. To begin with the archaeological community was actually happy to leave the site to be eroded - and only changed its standpoint after strong media pressure. However, the timbers of Seahenge, or Holme1 as it is known in archaeological circles, have allowed us to discover a great deal more about how it was constructed and the numbers of people involved; knowledge that would have been lost if the site had not been excavated. But there are always two sides to every story. There are people who believe that the circle represented a sacred boudary; a boundary better life and death, land and sea - and that perhaps we should have let seahenge slip over that boundary one last time...

So that is how I am spending my Day of Archaeology. Revisiting Holme beach and revisiting some old memories and old beliefs. The landscape on this part of the coast is ever changing. The storm surge that took place just before Christmas has altered things once again. Large areas that were once sand and shingle now see the black mass of exposed peat showing through; the peat that has aided in the preservation of these four thousand year old timbers. The site has change a great deal since 1998, but then again, so has archaeology.


*It isn’t a henge. Never has been, never will be. It also wasn’t a fish trap, beacon for ships crossing the wash, lunar observatory – or any of the other weird and wacky ideas that anybody comes up with after a few pints and a few idle moments. It was, most probably, an excarnation site. A place where the dead were laid out so that the flesh could deteriorate from their bodies, with the help of our charming local seagulls, before the bones were collected together later. The word ‘ritual’ is probably involved. Makes you think twice before feeding chips to the gulls on Wells quay doesn’t it…**

**Oh, and it wasn’t built by the sea either. Local erosion is such that it was probably nearly a mile inland when first built, in the salt marshes that sat behind the coast.

So, bit of a silly name on both counts really…