July 31st 2022

Churches we have looked at in recent months include Rockbeare, Huxham and Harberton – here are some of the highlights.

Rockbeare church has a good deal of interesting graffiti, much of which is in the tower. On the tower stair newel post there are three very nice asterisk/merel type marks – one is shown here. It has a notably off-centre vertical line, which we have seen several times elsewhere, and looks deliberate. These motifs were probably believed to be apotropaic.

1. Rockbeare. One of the asterisk/merels on the tower stair newel.

Lettering high up on the bell chamber doorway includes probable initials. These letters though (A M) are particularly well-formed and look as if they have been carved with a chisel.

2. Rockbeare. Letters A M & other marks on the bell chamber doorway.

And there seems to be a trowel (denoting a builder or stonemason perhaps?) – with the name A. MAR (then a ?K) above.

3. Rockbeare. A hollowed out trowel, the name ?A MARK and other lines.

On the back of the tower stairs is a list of dates from 1930 to 1939, when RW Smith (RWS) rang in the New Year, at 12.01 am. The list ends, sadly, with the words ‘Dec 31 1939  RWS – Did not ring the New Year in owing to the War Declared 11 am September 3 1939.’ There was a ban on the normal ringing of church bells from the outbreak of the war, until 1943.

4. Rockbeare. Back of tower stairs. 1939 record that RW Smith could not ring in the New Year due to the war.

A happier day, however, is noted on the tower roof, when someone drew around his shoe and wrote – ‘DICK 1945 VE 8 MAY’ (Victory in Europe Day) –  a public holiday and time of much celebration, including the ringing of church bells. There are several other shoe outlines on the roof too.

5. Rockbeare. Shoe outline on the tower roof lead, with the inscription ‘DICK 1945 VE 8 MAY’.

Moving on to Huxham – there are interesting things on the font. On the lead of the bowl there are three large scored W’s that look much more like apotropaic marks than someone’s initials. Protective marks on fonts are not uncommon.

6. Huxham. Three letter W’s, probably apotropaic, on the lead of the font bowl.

And in a couple of places on the rim, pieces of lead have been cut out. We can’t be sure of the reason but it may be that people were taking the lead for ‘medicinal’ use – in the belief that it had curative properties. The same occurs at Whitestone and Hartland (scroll down to Jan 30th 2022 entry). If anyone knows of other examples of this, or has heard of another explanation for such damage, please let me know.

7. Huxham. Piece of lead cut from the font lead lining.

In June someone from Harberton church got in touch to ask for help interpreting some graffiti they had found, as they thought it might be worthy of inclusion in an exhibition featuring items of interest in the church. Indeed it was – and between us we found a lot more of it! The most exciting item was at the top of the porch stair, where there is a scored image of an individual with stick legs, and arms with twig like hands or perhaps wings with feathers? The mouth seems open and/or has a protruding tongue or goatee beard. To the left is a bow and arrow, the name ‘john pomeroye’ and initials ‘IP’ (JP).  To right of the figure, on the newel,  is another bow and arrow,  and another feature (?figure) partly obscured by mortar.

8. Harberton. Porch stair figure with bows and arrows, and name John Pomeroye.

So –  what’s the story behind the ‘Harberton Archer’? Is John Pomeroye the person portrayed, or the artist, or neither? Was the figure an archer – perhaps killed by an arrow, or was someone hoping he would be? Or is it an angel or a folklore figure? It seems unlikely that we will ever know. There are baptism and burial records for many Pomeroy’s at Harberton, including a John Pomeroy baptised in 1682 – which could fit with the letterforms of the name.

Up on the tower roof there are probably more than 100 shoe outlines and a few hands marked onto the lead – the dated ones being mostly 19C. For some of those where a surname is given the family still live in the village.

9. Harberton. Shoe outlines and other graffiti on the lead of the tower roof.

At the west end of the nave is a pier with the remains of a complex motif combining concentric circles and a hexafoil. There were probably eight or nine circles, and parts of four ‘leaves’ (there would almost certainly have been six) can be detected. From the part that can be seen the motif looks finely executed, and it seems possible that it was ‘official’ – perhaps part of a decorative scheme? – rather than casual graffiti. On the south face of the same pier there is a, less regular, ring of smaller compass-made circles.

10. Harberton. Hexafoil (red highlight) and concentric circles design on the western pier of the south arcade.

And as for the stone pulpit! The inside is almost covered with graffiti, and mostly not that modern. There are several dated 17C and 18C initials – some beautifully done, and one full name, Nic Trist 1683, has been identified with a known person. And there is a fair smattering of apotropaic marks.

11. Harberton. Graffiti inside the stone pulpit.

There is also much graffiti of interest on the limestone of the south doorway and the porch. That on the doorway includes a mark  incorporating a letter M, with a cross or reversed 4 type symbol above. Intriguingly, the mark has been noted (by Rebecca Ireland, independent researcher) for its resemblance to an early monogram representing St Michael the Archangel. A ‘4’ symbol would suggest in addition that it was either adapted to be, or devised as a merchants mark. The larger letters I/J P above are probably unrelated initials (a John Pomeroy again?).

12. Harberton. Graffiti on the south doorway, including M monogram/merchants mark; initials JP above.

On the west gateway of the churchyard, there are a number of marks that look like arrow heads. One with a slight horizontal apex bar resembles a rough bench mark but there are at least four others. Arrow marks are not uncommon in churches and other buildings, and are generally thought to have been apotropaic. And as doorways were seen as in need of protection, why not gateways too – as a first line of defence? There are plenty of examples of apotropaic features found on gateways of secular buildings. I will pay more attention to church gateways from now on!

13. Harberton. Arrow marks outside the west gateway.

The exhibition at Harberton church, which features some of the graffiti, the fabulous bosses and the rood screen, is on for the summer, and the church is anyway well worth a visit. Apart from the graffiti shown here, there is much else of interest on the south doorway and in the porch (including some ‘not arrow sharpening marks’ outside on the left), and elsewhere. And if you look very carefully at the wonderful old screen panels displayed behind glass in the nave, you might spot some graffiti on just one of those too!

Pru Manning


April 24th 2022

We have looked at quite a few more churches over the last few months – fully recording some and doing an initial ‘recce’  for others.

A fair amount of graffiti  has been found in Talaton church, the greatest concentration being in the tower. This includes intriguing inscriptions on the back, or underside, of the stairs themselves, such as this irregular and unfinished hexafoil.  Adjacent  interlocking zig-zag/diamond marks may relate to M or W forms.  

Talaton. Tower stairs. Irregular hexafoil, zig-zag or M’s/W’s and other marks.

There is also a fabulous big (the scale is 10cm) elongated M that leaves us in little doubt of it being an apotropaic or protective mark. Assumed initials, T B, have been scored across it.

Talaton. Tower stairs. Large elongated M form – very likely a protective mark.

And just to add to our ongoing ponderings about the zig-zag ‘wrigglework’  technique/s  commonly seen on lead, we now have this example, someone’s initials, on stone.  Hmm.

Talaton. Clock chamber doorway. Initials HA made using wrigglework type method of marking.

Still at Talaton, on the clock chamber doorway is the well written and distinctive name Francis Trood Richards. Documentary research carried out by the graffiti recorders has shown someone of this name being born in 1821 in the adjacent parish of Payhembury.  In  1851 and 1881 he was noted as having a farm of 400 acres at Netherexe Barton, which employed ten men and a boy, and he died in 1908 aged 87.  It seems likely that this is the man who scored  his name on the doorway and if so, it’s pleasing to be able to put a story to a name.

Talaton. Clock chamber doorway. Name Francis Trood Richards.

Moving onto Whimple church tower, next to the roof doorway there is a wonderful vertical line of intertwined concentric circles  – of a design we haven’t encountered anywhere else so far.

Whimple. Tower wall close to roof doorway. Multiple interlocking circles design.

At Willand church, high up on an arch of the arcade are two pairs of compass drawn circles – a pair to each side of a joint in the stonework. Depending on their context (position in the church and proximity to other marks) compass circles may often have had an apotropaic, or protective, meaning. These particular circles, however, well above reach from the floor and neatly placed to either side of a stone joint, seem much more likely to be masons’ marks – possibly assembly marks – and a useful example they are too.

Willand. Arcade arch. Compass circles – probable masons’ marks.

Going somewhat out of county recently, to Carlisle in fact, I saw an unusual version of the grooves erroneously known as ‘arrow sharpening marks’  on the west tower of the wonderful fortified church of St Michael, Burgh by Sands.  There were just a few broad horizontal gashes and simple vertical score marks, as seen in Devon and elsewhere, but otherwise the marks (perhaps 70 or more) were  typically as shown in this photo . They consist of vertical grooves with a pronounced rounded top, where they seem to have been drilled or otherwise deepened.  It would be interesting to know if this is a regional variation found in other churches in the area.  

Carlisle, Burgh by Sands, St Michael’s church. Example of grooves on west wall of the tower. Oblique view emphasising depth of the features.


We are pleased to have been asked to contribute to the Church of England Church Heritage Record

This facility aims to be a central hub of data related to C of E churches, with a wide variety of topics ranging from architectural history and archaeology to the surrounding natural environment. It hasn’t been set up that long so the information might seem a bit limited at the moment, but it will fill out as further bodies contribute to it. 

For anyone who likes visiting or researching churches, the website has a very useful map with all C of E churches clearly picked out. If you click on a church information includes links to Heritage Gateway, the Listed Building record, church website and A Church Near You website. The Sources and Further Information section sometimes contains links to archive material, and if our Graffiti Survey website has a completed entry for that particular church, there will be a link to that too. 

Pru Manning


January 30th 2022

Interesting finds over the last few months include, from Broadclyst, what looks like a large decorative reversed letter S.  

Broadclyst. Large letter S (reversed) on a pier in the nave.

Also, excitingly, a ragged staff, as we haven’t found many of these so far.  The more deeply scored lines are the most visible – the finer ones may have been lost when the stonework was scraped to remove paint or plaster coatings.

Broadclyst. Parts of a ragged staff motif (outlined in red) on a pier in the nave.

At Whitestone, several double-lined hearts have been scored into one of the timber columns of the gallery. The top section of the hearts has been made using a compass – you can see the holes made by the point. The columns have been painted or varnished since, but the features are still visible as indentations. The significance of the hearts is not known.

Whitestone. One of several heart motifs scored into a column of the gallery.

The font at Whitestone is 19th century in date. The top edge of the lead lining is damaged in one area, where it looks as if it has been cut away with a knife. One of the cut indentations, perhaps by chance,  resembles a letter M. The reason for the damage is not known, but chips to the lead lining of Hartland church font are reputed to have been caused by people making lead pellets to cure toothache (Hartland Church Guide leaflet).

Whitestone font, with lead cut away on one side.

At St Saviour’s Dartmouth a surprising discovery was made on the rear face of the piscina in St Nicholas’ Chapel. Here there is a red ochre outline of what appears to be a boat – possibly a sketch  for an overlying painting that no longer exists. Above the sketch, and probably unrelated to it,  there is scored text and other graffiti that look quite early.   

Dartmouth St Saviour, St Nicholas’ Chapel. Red ochre drawing of boat on the piscina.

At St Clement’s Dartmouth, where little other graffiti survives, there are multiple shoe outlines on the lead of the tower roof. The graffiti is on selected pieces of old lead sheeting that have been saved and the panels soldered onto the new replacement lead. Many of the shoes are marked with initials, and those with legible dates are 19th century.   

Dartmouth, St Clement. Shoe outlines on the lead of the tower roof.

I am very pleased to be in touch with a graffiti recorder from the Midlands, Andy Bentham, who has told me about shoe outlines found in that area. In addition to those on the lead of church roofs, there are secular examples, including on the roof of a lodge at Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire. There are also occasional finds of shoe outlines directly associated with images of genitalia, including a shoe of 18th century date on which male and female genitalia are incorporated as part of a decorative design. This strongly suggests an apotropaic or protective meaning, and may give context to the phallic images we have from Torbryan, which are found alongside outlines of shoes (scroll down to News post for Jan 9th 2021).

I was also interested to read that in Welsh churchyards it is not uncommon to find shoe and hand outlines scored into memorial stones. The article is available on the Academia website.

If anyone finds hand or shoe outlines in churches/churchyards or on any buildings or structures (especially bridges), in any county,  please let me know – and if you can send a photo too that would be even better!

Pru Manning


October 20th 2021

Graffiti – making the marks

In our efforts to understand how graffiti was made, Sean has been experimenting with making marks in stone, wood and lead. Video clips of the experiments are now on Youtube – You can view them on our site here

October 2nd 2021

After a long wait due to Covid restrictions, we were delighted to be able to record the graffiti at St Mary’s Totnes recently. The sheer volume and variety of graffiti is surprising – the bulk of it is on the fabulous stone screens, and quite a lot looks fairly early.

Highlights include a number of merchants’ marks, which are great to see as we haven’t found them in many churches so far.

Totnes. Chancel rood screen. Two merchants’ marks, with characteristic ‘4’ shaped top. The one on the left incorporates the letter R.

There is also, excitingly, what looks like a simple drawing of a boat or ship on the rood screen in the south chapel.

Totnes. South chapel, rood screen. Possible boat or ship.

Symbols found include an intriguing deeply cut triangle, which has been overlain with a lightly scored  triangle at right angles to it – making a hexagram. It is not uncommon for a graffito to be altered by someone else at a later date, sometimes changing the meaning. In Christian iconography a triangle can represent the Trinity.

Totnes. Chancel, north parclose screen. Deeply cut triangle overlain with shallow triangle (feint) – forming a hexagram.

There are several examples of what seems to be fairly early text on the screens too, although it is not always easy  to read. This includes Christograms (IHS and IHC) in gothic blackletter script, and personal names.

Totnes. South chapel, parclose screen. IHC Christogram (highlighted).

Totnes. Chancel, south parclose screen. Name – ?Willyam Parry –?

Outside the church there is a mass dial on a buttress at the east end of the south wall. The dial is not that obvious unless you are looking for it and is a good example of why mass dials can sadly go unrecorded. The central hole for the former gnomon (shadow maker) tends to survive, not always as deep as this one, but the shallower hour lines or dot markers get weathered away. And there is not always an enclosing circle to help identify them either. So do keep a special look out!

Totnes. Mass dial on buttress at east end of south wall. Several ‘hour’ marker lines are visible in the bottom right quarter.

Also on the outside walls, oddly – all around the building, are series of scored grooves of the type erroneously known as arrow/sword etc. sharpening marks (with others just behind the church on the south doorway and wall of the Guildhall).

Totnes. Multiple scored grooves on the east wall of the chancel.

In my quest to find out more about such marks I have recently been in touch with a curator at Dublin Castle, where there are many examples on their 18th-century buildings, including in granite and limestone. These have traditionally been attributed to soldiers sharpening their bayonets, probably while bored when standing on guard duty.

Dublin Castle gate house, built c. 1760. Scored grooves on the granite doorway. Photo by W. Derham, Dublin Castle.

Nottingham archaeologist James Wright has recently posted an article about his research into this type of mark, which makes interesting reading and includes his thoughts on their occurrence in secular contexts too –  see

I am keen to collect as many examples of these marks as possible, from any building anywhere, so if you find some please send me a photo!

But – back to Devon – recent finds from other parishes include Doddiscombsleigh, where items on the inside face of the tower door include two compass drawn designs. The first is a hexafoil-type motif but with nine unevenly spaced complete or partial leaves – so perhaps gone awry in the making.

Doddiscombsleigh. Compass-made multi-foil on inside face of the tower door.

The other design is unusual and comprises  a circle containing 4 overlapping arcs, which form two ellipses at right angles to each other.

Doddiscombsleigh. Unusual compass-made design on inside face of the tower door.

And, lastly, on one of the medieval windows, restored in 1762, there is a wonderful inscription by the glazier Peter Coles, who’s name apparently also appears several times on the Great East Window in Exeter Cathedral.

Doddiscombsleigh. Medieval window in north aisle, with an inscription recording its restoration by Peter Coles, glazier, in 1762.

Pru Manning


JULY 31st 2021

Happily, a few people are out recording again, and finding some very nice graffiti. So here are a few highlights.

At Ashton there is masses of graffiti, including some splendid deeply cut grooves of the ‘not arrow sharpening marks!’ variety (see February posting for more on this type). These are clearly not random marks made by doing something practical like sharpening a tool, but are carefully placed, and on both sides of the porch archway.

Ashton. Series of deep vertical grooves on west side of porch archway.

We are also delighted to have a dagger. We are not sure of its likely type and date yet, which depends on whether some of the lines around the hilt are actually part of the drawing, or from unrelated graffiti – but we are working on it.

Ashton. Graffito of a dagger (pointing downwards) on a pier.

The most puzzling item from Ashton though is the feature below.  As it appears, we couldn’t quite make sense of it, although we had fun trying.

Ashton. Graffito of a ?stick figure on a pier.

But then the finder realised that by turning the image on its side (see below) it seems to show a stick figure behind a four legged ?table.  With a sword in its right hand? Or is it rather a figure on a horse – and holding the reigns? Or are we just getting carried away? There are also other lines, that may or may not be related. It’s not that rare to find graffiti text, VV symbols etc . written ‘sideways’, but what, if any, significance it had for this scene (if it is a scene), we don’t know. 

Ashton. Stick figure highlighted – image turned 90 degrees.

Moving on to North Devon we have an interesting phenomenon where specific scored or carved symbols are turning up, in similar contexts, in a number of churches. These include reversed swastikas, pentagrams and hexagrams (five/six- pointed stars), crosses, and a symbol made of a V and an inverted V. 

Newton St Petrock. Cross and pentangle on west side of chancel window.
Newton St Petrock. Reversed swastika and V/inverted V symbol on east side of chancel window.

At the moment most of the marks seem to be on stone associated with 19C refurbishments and it may be that they are 19C masons’ marks – perhaps emanating from a particular workshop/s?  Many are in oddly prominent  positions though, neatly flanking doorways, windows and image niches – not the seemingly random distribution we associate with medieval masons’ marks.  Also, although it’s true that some medieval masons’ marks take the form of W’s, pentangles, etc. (which can be confusing to those trying to identify actual graffiti), it seems that, so far, all of the North Devon symbols can have religious/apotropaic connotations (with the possible exception of one of uncertain form).  Anyway, we are still thinking, and collecting data – so our ideas may change . . .

Pru Manning


MAY 13th 2021

We are hoping that most churches will be open to us again very soon ― some excited recorders (me included) are in the process of contacting church wardens about access. I was delighted to be able to finish the recording at St John the Baptist church, Littlehempston. The results have joined the queue for the Churches page, but in the interim here are a few things of interest, not all of which, remarkably, are even graffiti!

Littlehempston church. Graffiti on a male effigy includes concentric circles on the head (is the position at the ear significant?), other marks and holes.
Littlehempston church. On a female effigy are probable initials PL, and overlapping V’s or W’s – possibly Marian marks.
Littlehempston church. In the room above the porch, not graffiti, but a nice example of masons’ setting out lines for carving the tracery.
Littlehempston church. Room above the porch. Remains of a medieval wall painting probably representing St John the Baptist. It was noticed in 1992, just visible beneath a thin layer of limewash. It is bisected by an inserted floor.

ALSO Sean has been continuing his experiments with tools used to make graffiti and in particular ‘wrigglework’ ― a decorative marking method most often associated with pewter and silver that produces a zig zag line. This is regularly employed to produce the foot/hand outlines and other graffiti found on the lead of tower roofs. We will post a special feature about these experiments at some point, then you can join us in puzzling about the how, who and why of the method’s use!

Seaton church. Examples of wrigglework foot outlines on the tower roof.

Pru Manning


MARCH 31ST 2021


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.

West range, ground floor south room. Well carved cross by east doorway.

West range, ground floor south room. Concentric circles by west doorway.

West range, ground floor south room. Deeply carved circles and hollows on west doorway return.

West range, undercroft. Taper burn marks and feint circle on fireplace lintel.

West range, undercroft. Example of Norman pier capital. No graffiti, although those holes look a bit suspect.

West range, first floor, stairway. Hexafoil outside the doorway of a possible former chapel.

North range hallway (private house). Asterisk on the eastern screen.

North range hallway (private house). Concentric circles on the western screen.

North range, upper floor (private house). Taper burn marks on panelling.

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.

Pru Manning




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.

Ashprington church Devon. Deep score marks on the south doorway.
Kenton church Devon. Broad score marks/grooves on the porch. Photo by John Allan.
Totnes church Devon. Vertical score marks.

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.

Checkley church Staffordshire. Broad grooves on a buttress. Photo by Craig Thornber on
Shotwick church Cheshire. Series of broad grooves in the porch. Photo by Craig Thornber on

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.

Pru Manning



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.

Torbryan. Outlines of a shoe and a phallus, on lead from the tower roof.

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.

Torbryan. V/inverted V symbol (highlighted) & letter R, within shoe outline on lead from the tower roof.

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.

Littlehempston. Figure on a pier.

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?

Littlehempston. Letters V X Z on pier base.

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.

Gloucester, private house. Graffiti on a fireplace lintel.
Gloucester, private house. Graffiti on a fireplace lintel.

Keep an eye on the excellent Raking Light website for interesting graffiti, articles, book reviews, notes of events etc.

Pru Manning