The following interpretation of various graffiti types is largely derived from the Volunteer Handbook and online interpretation pages of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, and Matthew Champion’s 2010 book Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches.

As the Devon project progresses we will be able to add our own examples to these and perhaps offer additional thoughts on what individual types of graffiti may mean.

There is almost no written or other evidence to tell us what people were thinking or hoping for when they scored a symbol, picture or other mark into the fabric of a church. The meaning or perceived function may have been quite specific, or more general, and could have meant different things to different people. Ideas about meaning may well have changed over time too – during a period of perhaps more than 500 years.

The interpretation of much graffiti should probably be seen as something of a useful ‘working hypothesis’ –  an aid in trying to understand and categorise what we are finding and help us search more productively.  The study of historic church graffiti is relatively new and it may be that our ideas about possible meanings will change with the discovery of new examples and contexts.

Ritual Protection Marks 

The most common types of graffiti to be found in medieval churches fall into the broad category of ‘ritual protection marks’, and many of the motifs illustrated here can probably be seen in this context. These marks are defined as symbols that have an overt ‘apotropaic’ function, derived from the Greek, meaning ‘to turn away’ (evil). In simple terms they are believed to ward off evil or bad luck and promote good fortune. They are often found around doors, windows and other openings in an attempt to stop malevolent forces entering the building.

 With our modern way of thinking, we may find it odd that such ‘superstitious’ marks were made on a Christian building. But for most ordinary people in the middle ages (and later) there was probably no inconsistency between using what they saw as traditional methods of protection, alongside more orthodox Christian practices, such as praying to a particular saint to keep them safe.



compass drawn designs

Compass Drawn Designs

Compass-drawn designs can range from simple circles, to six-petalled motifs known as daisy wheels or hexafoils (also found in formal church decoration), to highly complex geometric constructions...
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The pentangle is an ancient symbol whose use has been recorded as far back 3000BC...
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solomans knot

Solomon’s Knot

The Solomon's Knot, or Swastika Pelta is an ancient symbol, and is commonly seen in Roman mosaics...
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merels symbol

Merels Symbol

Motifs known as merels were often thought to represent the gaming board that gave them their name, but many are found on vertical surfaces...
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Grid Patterns

Scored criss-crossed lines or grids are commonly found in churches and early houses...
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dots and holes

Dots and Holes

A common find in many churches are multiple scored dots or holes, sometimes arranged in a regular pattern...
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v v symbol

‘V V’ symbol and other related letters

The 'V V' symbol is probably the most common mark to be found as graffiti in medieval churches and can appear as two conjoined V's or the letter W, upside down, and on its side...
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Letter P

Other letters with particular significance

Other letters found as graffiti include frequent probable initials, sometimes accompanied by a date. Not all single or paired/triple letters necessarily represent initials though, and numbers may also have special significance...
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textual inscriptions

Textual inscriptions

Finding early textual graffiti is very exciting but often frustrating too as many examples prove difficult or even impossible to read...
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Graffiti crosses can vary from elaborate and deeply incised examples, which clearly took some time and care to make, to mere scratches on the surface...
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consecration crosses

Consecration Crosses

Once a common site in churches everywhere, these crosses are often today found only as outlines in the stonework, and as such are sometimes mistaken for graffiti...
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ragged staff

Ragged Staff

The Ragged Staff motif, as found in church graffiti, was once believed to be associated with the Earls of Warwick, whose livery displayed the Bear and Ragged Staff...
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Graffiti depicting ships is not uncommon, and there are as many examples found inland as on the coast...
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Heraldic graffiti is fairly common, although sadly it is rare for it to be positively identified with a particular family...
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human figures

Human Figures

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

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...
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shoes and hands

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...
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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.
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mass dials

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...
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merchants 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...
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masons marks

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...
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architectural inscriptions

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...
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taper burn marks

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...
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