Taper Burn Marks

Taper burn marks are found on wood in medieval and later buildings and were once believed to be no more than the result of unguarded candles.

Detailed studies, however, have shown that these markings are commonly located in places where there is little or no chance of a lighted candle having been left. These include roof timbers, wall plates and timber hidden beneath the floor.

In addition, experiments have shown that a taper or candle has to be applied to the timber at a specific angle to create the distinctive tear-drop shaped mark and that in many cases the mark must have been made before the timber was put in place. Other experiments suggest that the considerable depth of some marks appears to be the result of repeated burning, scraping away and re-burning. The current thinking is that many, if not all, such marks were applied to the timbers during, or even before, construction and that they were created to guard the building against lightning, and more specifically, fire. It can, in some respects, be thought of as inoculating the building, the premise being that if timber is burnt once, it cannot be burned again.

The markings are also sometimes found in churches, most often on the inside of the main door. Examples in Devon include on rood screens, and on timber stairs.

taper burn marks

Architectural Inscriptions

Architectural designs and working drawings are occasionally found as graffiti, and the work of the East Anglian surveys has so far doubled the number of previously known rare examples.

Architectural drawings can vary greatly in scale, location and detail, but all have been created using precision tools. The largest of the examples – at Binham Priory (Norfolk) was nearly two metres tall, whilst the sketch for a window design at Weston Longville (Norfolk) was only 140mm across.

In terms of location, the designs can be found just about anywhere a flat surface was available (although see below), with the rear of rood screens being particularly popular. At least one example has been located on medieval plaster, and it is likely that many more have been lost as plaster has been replaced and renewed. Whilst telling us little in terms of social history, these inscriptions provide valuable information about medieval design and building processes.

In a church in Dartmouth, Devon, an architectural sketch of a window has recently been found on a circular pier.

architectural inscriptions

Masons’ Marks

Masons’ marks were used to indicate which mason had worked which piece of stone, probably as a way of allowing them to be paid accordingly.

It is clear that not all pieces of stone were identified in this way, and there is evidence to suggest that in some cases, at least, this was due to varying methods of payment dependent on the type of masonry work undertaken.

The designs of masons’ marks tend to be quite simple, involving a series of straight lines, but occasionally curved elements. This gave them the advantage of being produced with the minimum of effort whilst still being distinctive. Masons’ marks can be located just about anywhere in a church, including, unlike general graffiti, high up on the stonework, out of normal reach.

Frustratingly for us, masons’ marks can include symbols that are also commonly found as apotropaic marks, such as conjoined V’s or a W, or a pentangle. A distinguishing trait is that a mason’s mark would have been carved or stabbed in with a chisel or punch and may be fairly neatly executed. Also, you may find several examples of a mason’s mark that look very similar – i.e. all done by the same hand.

On wood you may find carpenters’ marks, which are not individual to the carpenter, but relate to the assembly of the structure. These often take the form of Roman numerals, neatly carved.

Masons’ marks and carpenters’ marks are not graffiti in the same sense as other marks, but we record them.

masons marks

Merchants’ Marks

A merchants’ mark was a distinctive symbol used by a merchant or trader for a variety of purposes, including to mark his goods and property, as a signature on documents and even on his personal seal.

Such marks were also used by non-merchants, and, for those below the level of the nobility, served as identification in a similar way to a coat of arms.

It is likely that some symbols that look like merchants’ marks relate rather to a religious or trade guild rather than a particular individual. This may be the case when the same mark is found many times in a particular church, or is seen in several churches in an area, and in some cases is differentiated by initials. They may also be seen associated with a side altar or guild chapel.

Merchants’ marks can be mistaken for masons’ marks although the former tend to be larger and more complex, may incorporate symbols and letters and are more likely to contain curved elements. They can also appear less professionally executed than a mason’s mark.

Many merchants marks incorporate what looks like a number 4 (sometimes reversed), which may have developed from a cross symbol, and there are other common elements.

merchants marks

Mass Dials

Mass dials can be puzzling things, as they are, curiously, often found inside churches as well as outside, and sometimes there are multiple dials placed together.

Mass dials, sometimes known as scratch dials, have long been the subject of academic and antiquarian study, being amongst the first informal church inscriptions to be systematically recorded. Over 6000 have so far been documented.

The traditional interpretation is that these simple sundials were used by either the parish priest, congregation or bell ringers to calculate the correct time for services.

Dials are usually found on the south side of the church, and often on or near the porch. Those found elsewhere on the church, such as the north side or inside, where they could not have functioned, are usually explained as having been moved from their original position. While this is doubtless true for some dials, there are now so many being found in odd locations that this explanation is being questioned. The possibility is being considered that some things that look like dials may have had another meaning or function. The presence of multiple dials, sometimes placed close together, on some churches is also puzzling if they are simply time-keepers.

mass dials

Musical Graffiti

Musical notation is amongst the rarest of all early church graffiti, with only a few dozen high quality examples being recorded across the entire country.

Most musical graffiti is found in our larger religious buildings, such as Norwich Cathedral and York Minster (and Exeter Cathedral), and most examples identified to date appear to be examples of chant or plainsong. The notation is often shown on a four line stave – the modern five line stave not entering general usage until the late15th or early 16th centuries.

The reason for the bias towards abbeys, priories and cathedrals may be because it was only at these larger monastic sites that musical notation was regularly used and taught, with musical knowledge generally being acquired less formally elsewhere.


Shoes and Hands

Images produced by drawing around hands or feet appear to be a universal phenomenon, found in the earliest cave paintings, and, of all graffiti, they suggest perhaps the strongest personal link with the maker.

Inscriptions of hands and shoes are very common in churches and range in date from medieval to modern. Some churches associated with medieval pilgrimage have large concentrations of them.

There are likely to be different reasons why such images were made and these may have changed over time. Most may be simply marking an individual’s presence or pilgrimage to the church. There are, however, parallels with the votive wax images of body parts that were left at shrines in the hope, or thanks for a cure. Examples of medieval foot or shoe inscriptions have also been found on medieval bridges and wayside chapels.

In the post medieval period some inscriptions are undoubtedly memorial or commemorative in nature, appearing with names, initials and dates inscribed within them. Others, particularly among those found on the lead of the church roof, can mark works undertaken on the building.

It may be relevant that shoes also figure in folk belief, sometimes being concealed within a building to ward off evil.

A number of Devon examples of hand and shoe graffiti has been found, especially on the lead of tower roofs.

shoes and hands

Animals, Birds and Fish

Animals birds and fish are common motifs amongst early graffiti inscriptions, but it is rare to be able to assign a likely meaning to them.

In the Bible and in medieval art there are references to a number of specific types of bird, such as the Holy Spirit symbolised as a dove and St John the Evangelist as an eagle. Most inscribed birds, however, are stylised and cannot be identified as a particular type, and we do not know if they represented spiritual or earthly beings. The example of a bird shown here has a cross on its back so presumably had a religious meaning.

As the image of a fish (or the acronymn ICHTHYS – Greek for ‘fish’) was an early symbol of Christianity, it seems possible that fish inscribed in churches could also represent the faith in some way. Although It has been suggested that the Christian association with the fish image was lost by the middle ages, its current use among Christians deriving from its re-adoption in the late 20th century.

It is notable that the animals that would have been most familiar to the majority of people, farm animals, horses, rabbits, dogs and cats are rarely found as graffiti, whereas deer and hunting dogs are more common.

animals birds and fish

Human Figures

Depictions of human figures are sometimes found as graffiti, either as full length figures, or as heads/faces.

Many examples of human figures, such as those at Troston (Suffolk), consist of medieval figures with hands raised in attitudes of prayer, and are clearly devotional in nature, whereas others are more ambiguous. Many of the faces appear stylised to the point of caricature, and it is difficult to suggest that these have any devotional meaning.

At Marsham (Norfolk) there is a small and crudely executed scene at the base of one of the piers depicting two figures. The first, shown with sword and shield, is clearly meant to be a knight or soldier, while that opposite appears to be a beast or dragon. The dragon figure, however, has a fringe instead of feet, so may represent a medieval player in costume, with the scene being from a medieval mummers play. Perhaps even a play enacted in the same church.

So far, in Devon, a number of ‘stick’ type figures have been found. Some have notable features, such as one with very large hands, perhaps suggesting that it may represent a being from folklore or other story. There are also examples of profile heads, one of early 20th century date and wearing a military cap.

human figures