OCTOBER 13th 2023
Quite a few Devon churches have been recorded over the summer, so here are examples from some of them. And a few things from much further afield too.
There is a fair amount of graffiti at Stokeinteignhead church, including a number of boats/ships on the soft limestone doorways. Some of these were fairly easy to spot, while others surprised us by emerging from the background of more obvious graffiti when peering at the photos!
At the top of this photo is a lightly scored ship, including hull, planking, mast and rigging. Cutting through it are four large letters or possibly the date 1561? Below this the initials IG and date 1679 are arranged to either side of a row of circles.
On the arch of the north porch a clearly defined pentangle and shield cut through what looks like the feint planking and rigging of a ship, although there are other confusing lines. If it is a ship, the taller part on the left may be a sterncastle, which suggests a medieval date.
Also on this arch is a series of deep vertical score marks, to add to our collection.
At Combpyne, again much of the graffiti is on the limestone doorways. On the south doorway, an intriguing part of what is presumably a compass drawn circle is visible, the remaining part being hidden by the plaster/rendering. Its position suggests a possible mass dial, but no definite internal markings are visible. A lone letter W has been scored above it.
On the north doorway the graffiti includes a deeply cut cross, possibly ‘official’ as it has pronounced serifs and looks like it may have been carved with a chisel. Beside it is a diamond shape with internal vertical line or possibly a cross, and a pentangle to the right.
Inside the church on the west wall is a consecration cross – splendid to see, as not that many of these seem to have survived. Such crosses are of course formal rather than graffiti, but it’s interesting how the internal lines making the cross have been made or re-worked freehand rather than using a compass, and do not form symmetrical arcs.
At Cheriton Fitzpaine, probably the most surprising graffiti is in the room over the porch. The plastered walls are covered with ?pencil/crayon graffiti, mainly names, initials and 18th/19C dates, mostly in large copperplate-style writing. Some names are legible but much is blurred or there is a palimpsest, so difficult to decipher. And there is what looks like a profile of a head on one wall. There is also graffiti cut/scored into the limestone doorway, including 18th – 19th century dates. The church guide suggests the room may have been used as a schoolroom at some point.
On the doorway is a feature, or perhaps two features, that looks a bit like a boat and a bit like a merchants’ mark.
At Kilmington there is a fair amount of graffiti in the tower. Items of particular interest include a cross-bearing orb or Globus Cruciger – a Christian symbol signifying Christ’s dominion over the orb of the world. It is not something we have found before as graffiti.
In the tower, on the riser of a step outside the clock chamber is a wonderful hexafoil-type motif, but with only four leaves (instead of the more common six), and two arcs. The circle must originally have extended to the top edge of the step, where it has been worn away by the passage of feet over – how long? No doubt about the antiquity of this one then!
TOTNES ST MARY’S GRAFFITI LEAFLET
Back in 2021 we reported on the fabulous graffiti at St Mary’s, Totnes (scroll down to the post for 2 October 2021), brought to our attention by DAS member Pruw Boswell-Harper, who realised it was something quite special. Following our recording the graffiti together, Pruw has produced a leaflet for visitors to the church, in the hope of inspiring them to have look at the graffiti for themselves and marvel at the volume of it, as we have done. Why not visit Totnes and see for yourselves?
Briefly straying away from churches, I was delighted to be shown a candle-marked ceiling in the attic of a 16C Devon farmhouse recently. This is something I had read about, but never seen for myself. The marks, which were drawn with a lighted candle, include many letters, most or all of which could be personal initials, at least nine crosses, and other marks.
A number of candle-marked ceilings in the east and south-east of England have been studied and written about by architectural historian and artist Timothy Easton (ref. below), who kindly commented on the Devon example. It seems that it is not of the same character and clearly apotropaic purpose as the types he has published (some at least are of likely 17C date), which are often dense with protective symbols and may have been made by expert cunning-folk (wise man/wise woman). See Easton, T. 2011 ‘Candle Powers’ in Cornerstone (magazine of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) , vol. 32 No. 4.
The Devon ceiling is, however, of considerable interest, and the crosses in particular are intriguing when considering the possibility of a protective function. On the adjacent roof timbers there are candle/taper burn marks (now generally accepted as apotropaic), which may have been made at the same time.
If anyone knows of other examples of candle-marked ceilings, in Devon or elsewhere, I would be very pleased to know of them. I understand that people may prefer not to have locations made public.
It’s always interesting to compare our Devon graffiti with that from other places, and this year I had a look at some in southern Ireland. I was surprised to see what looked like a recently made grid graffito next to a window in the remains of Cong Abbey, County Mayo.
In Blarney Castle, County Cork, much of the mass of graffiti seems similar to the tourist names/initials/dates sort we find here, but I thought this one was particularly interesting. The name Newsom with a butterfly symbol (believed to be apotropaic) for the letter N, and a pentangle to the right.
We have the same N or M butterfly combination at St Saviour, Dartmouth and possibly elsewhere.
In Ireland I also saw series of scored marks/grooves of the sorts we often find (i.e. at Stokeinteignhead, photo 4 above) some of which are erroneously referred to in the UK as ‘arrow/sword sharpening marks’. Examples include on piers and to either side of a doorway at Ardfert Cathedral.
But, to trump anything I saw, I have just been sent this fantastic example from Spain!
April 23rd 2023
A few years ago we had a look at Axmouth, Uplyme and Southleigh churches, but recently got back in to see the towers and finish off the recording. There is a fair amount of graffiti on the easily scored soft limestone – here are a few examples.
The graffiti at Axmouth includes these splendid complex compass-drawn designs. On the bottom circle the tool has slipped, creating an additional outer line. There are other circles and partial circles adjacent to the right (not shown here).
On another pier is an apparent scene of some sort, possibly including a cross, although there is a ?tree and other items on the top line, a ladder, and an unknown object below. Or some have suggested it is a birds’ eye view of a boat?
On the exterior south wall of the chapel is a mass dial on what may be a re-sited piece of stone. This is a good example of how some mass dials can be very difficult to spot. We may well not have seen it but for the fact it is recorded on the British Sundial Society Mass Dial Register. There is another one on the same wall that is even more elusive, and a third that we never found – although we suspect the record for that one may be incorrect.
At Uplyme there is much graffiti on the old disused font, including a circular feature of unknown meaning, the words ‘IN 1750’ and many probable initials.
On a pier in the north aisle there is an unusual concentric circle motif with curved radiating lines. The top part of the feature was probably eroded by stone cleaning as there are feint indications of additional lines.
At Southleigh there is a good deal of graffiti on the tower arch and up in the tower itself, and there are three mass dials outside.
The tower arch graffiti includes fascinating depictions of what looks like a hand and a bare foot – with something unidentifiable in between.
And there are some very nice scored merels (possibly apotropaic), and bell ringers call change numbers (definitely functional).
By an upper window in the tower there is a fascinating figure, which holds up a large twig-like hand. Its position next to a window suggests a possible apotropaic/protective meaning or function, as do circles and other marks around the window .
This reminded me of other strange figures that we have seen. At East Ogwell there is a figure with its hands in the air, in a pose that could perhaps be seen as intended to scare something off, and at Offwell there are two rather scary figures with accentuated hands.
The final image from Southleigh is of a small irregular apparent mass dial, which is unusually low on the wall (0.3m from ground). The two other mass dials on the church are much larger and more symmetrical.
Heading north west to Alwington church, a number of symbols have been scored into a memorial to Richard Coffin of Portledge manor, who died in 1766. As the group includes symbols that could be a mix of Christian, astrological, alchemical or magical, we might wonder about an apotropaic function. But we have found five (so far) of the marks, similarly executed, in a number of north Devon churches, and seemingly associated with 19C restoration work (?masons’ marks – see article below for July 31st 2021). So at the moment the Alwington marks are something of a puzzle.
And lastly, Parkham church (North Devon) seems to have little graffiti, but there is a cross and an unknown symbol on the south doorway.
December 18th 2022
If you missed out on the Making Your Mark 2022: The Symposium for the Study of Historic Graffiti – the good news is that the event was recorded and is now available on https://www.youtube.com/@MakingYourMarkConference/videos .
So, back to Devon. Churches recorded in part or full over the summer and autumn include Cadbury, Yarcombe, Shute and Clovelly, and we have done initial/partial recces at quite a few others.
From Cadbury we have the latest date of use so far for the puzzling ‘wrigglework’ method/s of marking – 1971 no less! This is so recent that surely there must be someone out there with first-hand knowledge of what tools were used for at least some of these various types of mark? Please get in touch if you know.
At Yarcombe there is fascinating graffiti on the south doorway, including medieval text.
Also on the south doorway are initials and the date 1678 or 1681. The initials look like I W, followed by a merchants’ mark or a letter I which incorporates such a mark. The characteristic ‘4’ type symbol of a merchant’s mark is found in formal carving too (see below).
In Cullompton church there is a set of corbels with figures who hold such a ‘4’ symbol (this one turned on its side) . Here they are associated with the famous cloth merchant John Lane who would have used the mark to identify his goods.
From a fairly a quick look, there seems to be little graffiti in the nave and chancel at Cullompton. There are a few minor marks on the back of the rood screen, where we also found these carpenters’ marks – not graffiti, but a nice example of other marks we come across. Made using a woodworkers’ race knife, this one has two ‘crescents’ above the circle, but another had just one crescent – probably a numbering system related to assembling the screen.
At Shute church one of the limestone quoins on the porch has some very interesting graffiti. The circular feature superficially resembles a mass/scratch dial (especially with the central hole), but the number and positions of the lines would be very unusual for a dial. The feature looks more like an eight armed device, one meaning of which is a Christian symbol – an eight armed cross – with explanations including the combination of an upright cross with the monogram of Jesus Christ (I X). To the right of the circle is a massive Marian-type M or perhaps a ‘butterfly’ symbol (both apotropaic) and the juxtaposition of the two features is probably significant.
On the west doorway at Shute we were delighted to find a hand outline, dated 1633. We don’t know it’s significance or who GR was, but it is similar to one dated 1708 on the porch at Awliscombe. The latter hand is known as the ‘brides hand’ – and new brides still place their hand in it for luck. The Shute hand has a feint W on the wrist, which may be an apotropaic Marian-type mark.
At Clovelly church there is a good deal of graffiti on the benches, including a few wonderful ships.
Briefly straying away from churches, to Compton Castle, Marldon, on the doorway to the kitchen there is a sandstone block with a series of score marks, and a pronounced dished or bevelled section on the corner. The marks are said to be knife-sharpening marks. It is believed that any action with a blade that produced such V- shaped score marks would have blunted rather than sharpened a blade. But it’s interesting to see them here alongside a dished/bevelled corner – which on its own may not seem an improbable result of tool sharpening. We have seen such dished corners though on a number of churches, in Devon and elsewhere. We will keep thinking and collecting examples, in the hope of enlightenment.
I recently had the chance to visit St Mary’s church, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, which has a truly stunning amount of graffiti carved into the soft limestone walls and piers. The most well-known piece is probably the remarkable text on the tower wall recording the plague in 1348/49 from which ‘a wretched populace survives’, followed by the record of a catastrophic storm – ‘a mighty wind’ – on St Maur’s Day in 1361. Textual graffiti that records a major event is pretty rare, so this is very special indeed.
Another famous piece in the tower is a drawing of what has been identified as old St Paul’s Cathedral in London, or alternatively, the transept of Westminster Abbey, which had the patronage of Ashwell until the Reformation (V. Pritchard English Medieval Graffiti, p. 183). Either way, it’s a fabulous drawing.
There are many other special graffiti items at Ashwell, including the rarer (in Devon so far) examples of medieval text , sketches of windows, and drawings of churches – which are really nice to see. There is also though much of the more usual sort found in Devon and elsewhere, such as Marian M’s/W’s, circular motifs, crosses, holes, ladders, grids, IHC Christograms, asterisks/merels, shoe outlines, birds, initials and dates etc. If you are ever in that area, it’s more than well worth a visit – and much is clearly visible without the aid of a torch (not that you would even think of visiting a church without one!).
Making Your Mark 2022: The Symposium for the Study of Historic Graffiti
This exciting event will be held at the University of York on Saturday 19th November. Attendance in person (£5) or online (free). It’s open to all – tickets are available from Eventbrite and details of the programme are on the booking page. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/making-your-mark-2022-the-symposium-for-the-study-of-historic-graffiti-tickets-456939356917?aff=ebdsoporgprofi
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.
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.
And there seems to be a trowel (denoting a builder or stonemason perhaps?) – with the name A. MAR (then a ?K) above.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?).
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are pleased to have been asked to contribute to the Church of England Church Heritage Record https://facultyonline.churchofengland.org/churches
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.
January 30th 2022
Interesting finds over the last few months include, from Broadclyst, what looks like a large decorative reversed letter S.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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. https://www.academia.edu/5430531/Graffiti_in_Dolgellau_Churchyard_2008_
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!
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.
There is also, excitingly, what looks like a simple drawing of a boat or ship on the rood screen in the south chapel.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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 https://triskeleheritage.triskelepublishing.com/mediaeval-mythbusting-blog-10-arrow-stones/
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.
The other design is unusual and comprises a circle containing 4 overlapping arcs, which form two ellipses at right angles to each other.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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!
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!
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.