Why we record graffiti

In recent years it has increasingly been recognised that historic graffiti is a valuable resource for study, and of value in its own right as part of the history of a building. By its informal nature it tends to represent ordinary people, who are often otherwise invisible in the more formal historical record.

A great deal of church graffiti has been lost in past restoration work, especially in the Victorian period, when stonework was cleaned and scraped back to remove plaster and paint. So what we have left is precious and well worth recording. Deeply scored graffiti sometimes survived, or partially survived, this ordeal. It is often the case that the less public parts of the building were left unrestored, so graffiti may survive there too.

It is not surprising that there is generally less graffiti found in churches that are predominantly granite, or other difficult to carve/scratch stone, although marks are often also found on wooden benches and screens, stone effigies, plaster, leadwork and occasionally window glass.

By collecting data on the different types of graffiti we find we hope to better understand what the various marks may represent and why they might have been made. When we have enough data it will be interesting to compare our findings with those of other counties to see if there are regional differences.

We will inform those who take care of the church buildings about their graffiti, so they can appreciate it, tell others about it, and make sure it doesn’t get inadvertently damaged during any building works. And we will give a summary of the findings for each church to the Historic Environment Record, so it will be available for everyone.


What counts as graffiti?

For the purposes of the project, the term ‘graffiti’ covers all deliberately made informal markings, i.e. those which are not part of the official designed fabric of the church, such as carvings, sculpture or paintings.

The majority of findings can probably be termed as apotropaic (to turn away (evil) – from the Greek apotropaios) or ritual protection marks, made with the intention of protecting people or the building from harm. Such graffiti can take the form of particular letters (most commonly W and M), recognisable symbols and features (e.g. circles, pentangles, hexafoils) and other less conventional or formally executed markings, including criss-crossing, lines and dots/holes.

Objects, including ships and hand or shoe outlines are found fairly frequently and images of people, animals and somewhat uncertain beings (!) have also been recorded. Initial letters are common and sometimes accompanied by a date (which can include memorials). Most modern graffiti seems to consist of initials.  

Although they are not true graffiti, we also record masons’ marks, carpenters’ marks and apparent mass or scratch dials which are, curiously, often found inside churches as well as outside. We record graffiti of all periods, including modern, although much is likely to be difficult, or impossible, to date.

How do we record it?

The methods we use to record the graffiti are simple, and involve using a ‘raking light’ (a light held at an oblique angle) to create a shadow in the incised marks, making the graffiti show up as clearly as possible. We then photograph it and fill in simple recording sheets.