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 such marks were applied to the timbers during, or even before construction, and that they were designed to protect the building. Such safeguards could possibly have been specifically against lightning or fire, based on the premise that if timber is burnt once it cannot be burned again. Or they may have been seen as providing protection from other harms.

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

A masons’ mark is a symbol cut into the stone by the stonemason. The use of masons’ marks in the medieval period is not well understood. It seems that there was no universal system of marks and marking and that individual workshops may have devised their own ways of working.

It is often suggested that the marks indicated which mason had worked which piece of stone, possibly as a way of allowing them to be paid accordingly and/or for some sort of production or quality control purposes.

It is clear that not all pieces of stone were identified with such marks, and there is evidence to suggest that in some cases, at least, this may have been 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, and it may be that a mason who used such a mark was aware of its additional significance. A distinguishing trait of masons’ marks is that they 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 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. Assembly marks are occasionally found on stone too.

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 or scratch dials are a simple early type of sundial found on churches, often on the south side, which gets the most sun. They are referred to as scratch dials because they are often crudely made, and mass dials because they are believed to have indicated (when the sun was shining) the times of services. Their use, however, is not fully understood, and they vary in the time periods they seem to denote.  Also, some churches have several of them, occasionally placed close together. 

 It is not that unusual to find a mass dial inside a church, or outside on the north side, where clearly it cannot have worked. This can be explained by the dial being moved from its original position when the wall it was on was demolished or altered – the piece of stone simply being re-used during rebuilding. The positions of some though suggest that the dial may have retained some significance, even if no longer functioning as a time marker. For example those at Woodbury and Topsham (Devon) are just inside the south doorways – perhaps deemed to be close to their original sites. Although there is another apparent former dial at Woodbury, next to the door inside the bell ringing chamber. 

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.

In Devon many examples of hand and shoe graffiti have been found, especially on the lead of tower roofs. A few of these contain probable apotropaic marks, which suggests that the outline was seen to represent the maker in a spiritual way, and by protecting the outline one was protecting the person.

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