MARCH 31ST 2021
ST NICHOLAS PRIORY, EXETER
Back in 2018, Sean and I were invited to visit St Nicholas’ Priory, Exeter, to see the graffiti. There is a fair amount of it, including various types of compass made marks, an abundance of taper burn marks (it’s always nice to see examples of these, as we haven’t found them in many churches), and other interesting things.
Some of the graffiti, in the west range in particular, may date to the time of the medieval priory (i.e. up to the Dissolution in 1536). But quite a bit is later, following the conversion of the surviving buildings into a great town house, which was subsequently subdivided. Here are some examples of what we found.
The Priory buildings are very special and well worth a visit. My favourite part is the stunning Norman undercroft, but it’s all good. Once Covid restrictions allow, it may be possible to arrange a tour with particular focus on the graffiti. So let me know if you think you might be interested.
And why not keep an eye on the Priory website for events – the current online talks and outside tours will be followed by indoor access and activities as soon as they are allowed. https://www.nicholaspriory.com
FEBRUARY 28TH 2021
?ARROW SHARPENING MARKS
Some churches have series of deep vertical grooves scored into the stonework, often near doorways, which are usually explained in church guides or by the parishioners as arrow sharpening marks. Such marks seem to be found across the country, with Devon examples including the parish churches of Ashprington, Kenton, Paignton, Higher Ashton and Totnes.
The arrow sharpening theory has often been questioned, and a recent talk by archaeologist James Wright (Triskele Heritage Nottingham), who thoroughly debunked it (see below), prompted me to look at some Devon and other examples. All of the photos shown here are of marks described in their localities as resulting from arrow sharpening.
The arrow sharpening story usually cites the English medieval laws requiring men to own a bow and arrows, and to regularly practice using them. In addition, some archery butts are known to have been close to the church, and churchyards often contain ancient yew trees – possibly useful for making bows [although better yew was imported].
Experts in the reconstruction and use of medieval weaponry, and indeed even people who still use a whetstone to sharpen tools, tend to be puzzled by the ‘sharpening’ explanation of these marks. To sharpen a blade, which ideally needs to be done on the flat, it has to be rubbed across the stone, or the stone rubbed across it, at a precise and fairly shallow angle. This may eventually wear a shallow dish or groove in the stone, but not a deep and steep sided one. The general consensus seems to be that a blade may well be blunted in making these marks, but not sharpened.
The points made by James Wright against the arrow sharpening theory included 1) The types of stone in which these marks are often found would not have been effective for sharpening purposes, such as soft limestones [in the examples he has seen. The ones identified in Devon so far seem to be on sandstone]. 2) Many of the marks are orientated vertically and located fairly low on the wall, so it’s difficult to see how one could practically draw a metre long arrow shaft up the stone in such a way as to create the marks. 3) Whetstones were widely available, and a lot easier to use. There is 16th century documentary evidence for archers carrying hand held whetstones and files. 4) The arrows used for practice were designed for that purpose, with blunt tips, which did not need sharpening. [Metal arrowheads are apparently not found at historic practice butts sites – only where there was real military activity].
To these points we can add that similar marks are found well outside the remit of English archery laws. In Scotland, they exist on churches and castles, the latter explained as resulting from sword sharpening (but again – this apparently would blunt the blade). They are also found on churches in Ireland and on the Continent.
So, if they were not made by archers sharpening their arrows, what are they?
We will probably never know for certain, and it may be that they didn’t all have the same meaning for the makers, or for people that had later interaction with them. The marks I have seen so far from Devon, and from an internet trawl for other UK examples, suggests that they vary a lot in character. I don’t know if this reflects differences in how they were made, the type of stone (i.e. hard or soft), or their purpose. We don’t have many to compare yet for Devon (job anyone?), but some, like Ashprington and Totnes are fairly narrow score marks, whereas others are very wide suggesting repeated working.
And from the Midlands (Checkley and Shotwick, below) there are remarkable short wide ones, almost boat-shaped, some of which are so evenly arranged on the stone that they look as if they were set out together.
But there are some possibilities as to meaning. In the late 19th century American archaeologist/anthropologist Charles Rau wrote of ‘cup excavations and furrows on the outside walls of churches’ in Germany, France and elsewhere. These were believed to be associated with common traditions of scraping (one case of drilling) the fabric to obtain the dust, which was then ingested for its perceived curative properties. The cups themselves could also be associated with healing, including by blowing disease into them, and possibly applying grease (you would never guess some of these things!). In some cases the same practices were associated with notable (standing) stones. The only illustration shows small circular ‘cups’ and a pair of elliptical diagonally placed ‘furrows’ – so perhaps not that similar in form to our marks, but the associated beliefs may be relevant.
In fact, beliefs in the power of sacred building fabric are still current, for example at the Grotto of Our Lady, or Milk Grotto, in Bethlehem. Here, powder from the rock can be obtained, and, used in conjunction with prayer, is reputed to cure infertility in women. And in Devon in the 1950’s practices were remembered in which gratings from church statues were sprinkled at the entrance of pig houses and shippons, to ward against disease.
So it is certainly feasible that we could find marks on churches related to such stone removal (including perhaps the many small drilled and other deliberately made holes that we find). Although whether that developed into a tradition of making multiple deep, vertical grooves is another question. But it is also the case that the marks are occasionally found on secular buildings, such as those around a side door on the Guildhall at Totnes. I don’t currently know of other local secular examples (please let me know if you do), but there are some on gateways and doorways of a number of Scottish castles. For any of these one could reasonably argue an apotropaic function (vulnerable entranceways), and indeed a lot of the church examples are close to doorways too.
Some interesting research has been done in Ireland by Conor Newman (University of Ireland), on early Christian stones that have series of apparent blade marks cut into them. In most examples the cut marks are adjacent to polished smooth patches, the latter of which he interprets as potentially resulting from blade/sword sharpening, the blades having been blunted by making the cut marks – all part of some sort of ceremony. The latest examples of cut marks cited are on medieval churches, suggesting that the tradition moves from the early stones to the later churches. I am not sure at the moment if these marks are similar to our ‘arrow sharpening’ marks – further research is needed!
OK, so where does this all this leave us? Probably the best we can say at the moment is that the marks were unlikely to have been made by people trying to sharpen arrows and swords. The marks vary quite a lot in form and may not have all been made in the same way or for the same purposes. Given our experience with other graffiti though, it seems probable that most of the marks had some sort of apotropaic and/or other magical uses. This could perhaps be related to the removal of stone dust, and/or a meaning and function for the grooves themselves.
Please get in touch if you would like details of any of the documentary sources.
The photos were taken by members of the survey group, unless otherwise stated.
JANUARY 9TH 2021
A good number of churches were recorded in 2020 between Covid lockdowns 1 and 2. Now we are in lockdown 3 we probably won’t be finding much new for a while – unless of course anyone spots anything on the outside of their local church on their daily exercise walk? Or even on another historic building – we could branch out a bit in casual reporting. I am always happy to see historic graffiti from any context! In the meantime I can rummage through the archive for things of interest. Nice finds from 2020 not yet added to the Churches page include some from Torbryan and Littlehempston.
At Torbryan, on pieces of lead saved from the roof, there are a number of shoe/foot outlines, the ones with dates spanning from the early 1700s to 1900. There are also, uniquely to us so far, what appear to be two phalluses marked on the lead, one feint and possibly underlying a 1747 shoe outline.
Phallic graffiti may be due to no more than ‘schoolboy humour’, but unless the image looks fairly recent it seems worth considering an apotropaic function. In the medieval period sexual body part badges (male and female) were common and their possible meanings include protective properties. There are of course much earlier uses of phallic apotropaic imagery in the Classical world, as anyone familiar with the Roman city of Pompeii will know.
Other possible apotropaic marks on the lead include a V/inverted V symbol that we have seen in other churches, (see Beaford and Huntshaw on the Churches page) and may have originally been a Marian mark.
At Littlehempston recording is still ongoing, but we found a strange little figure on a pier last time we were there, much to the surprise of the church warden. I don’t know if the lines on the body represent ribs, like a cadaver monument or a skeleton, or if it’s someone holding a shield that has chevron ornament – or indeed none of these.
On the base of another pier there are some carefully set out letters, V X Z, separated by pairs of drilled dots. The letters seem unlikely as personal initials, and too time-consuming to create to be a usual type of masons’ mark – also their position suggests they were probably carved when the pier was in situ. Ideas anyone?
GRAFFITI FROM FURTHER AFIELD
Someone kindly sent me photos of some fascinating graffiti on a fireplace lintel in a late medieval/post-medieval private house in Gloucester. There are several hexafoils – the protective properties of one seemingly enhanced by the addition of an M/inverted W placed within it. Also visible are other partial circles, a number of lone W’s/M’s, possible other letters and marks. Apotropaic marks around fireplace openings are common, as they are around windows and doors, due to fears of evil spirits or suchlike getting into the building.
THINGS TO DO
Keep an eye on the excellent Raking Light website https://rakinglight.co.uk for interesting graffiti, articles, book reviews, notes of events etc.