The Devon Historic Graffiti Survey is a project of the Devon Archaeological Society.
The aim of the Devon Historic Graffiti Survey is to identify and record the historic graffiti in Devon’s churches. It is one of a number of volunteer-run county surveys inspired by the pioneering Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, which was set up in 2010 by archaeologist Matthew Champion.
It is Matthew Champion’s ambition that the information from all the surveys will eventually be fed into a national database, although this is not set up yet. In Devon we will make sure that a summary of the information for each church makes its way onto the Historic Environment Record.
Although the existence of medieval and later graffiti in various churches around the country has long been recognised, these large scale systematic surveys are showing how widespread a phenomenon graffiti is, and challenging formerly held beliefs about it. Rather than the creation of graffiti being frowned upon (as it has been in more recent times), it seems likely that it was considered as acceptable, at least at a local level. The results of the surveys are fascinating, and provide, among other things, a rare insight into the concerns and beliefs of ordinary parishioners, through something that was created directly by them.
A good deal of graffiti has doubtless been lost in the past during church restoration work (especially in the Victorian period), when pillars and other stone surfaces were cleaned and scraped back, removing plaster or paint. A study of a number of Devon parish churches to date, however, suggests that there is a significant amount of graffiti surviving, much of which is of probable medieval and post-medieval origin, although some is later.
For the purposes of the project, the term ‘graffiti’ covers all deliberately made markings, not just writing. Examples may include many and varied apotropaic (to avert evil – from the Greek apotropaios) or ritual protection symbols and marks, Christian symbols, text, objects, images of people, animals and architectural sketches. Masons’ marks, merchants’ marks and carpenters’ marks are also recorded as are apparent mass or scratch dials which are, curiously, often found inside churches as well as outside. We record graffiti of all periods, including modern, although much is likely to be difficult, or impossible, to date.
An individual church may have little or no surviving graffiti, a moderate amount, or a lot, and it may be found throughout the building, or (more often) concentrated in certain places. It is not surprising that there is generally less graffiti found in churches that are predominantly granite, or other difficult to carve/scratch stone, unless they have softer stone dressings. However, graffiti can also be found on wooden benches and screens, stone effigies, plaster, leadwork and occasionally window glass. Particular concentrations of graffiti are interesting and in some cases may suggest a ‘lost’ former feature, such as an altar or other focus of attention or activity, for which no other evidence survives.
Some selected images from churches that have been surveyed can be found by following these links:
East Devon (70 civil parishes)
The methods we use to record the graffiti are simple, and involve using a ‘raking light’ (a light held at an oblique angle) to create a shadow in the incised marks, making the graffiti show up as clearly as possible. We then photograph it and fill in two simple recording sheets. People can work on their own, or in pairs or groups (often more fun!) where the tasks of photographing, form-filling and lamp-holding can be shared. No previous experience is needed as training and guidance will be given.
If you think you would like to take part in the survey, or for more information, please contact Pru at: Devon Historic Graffiti