Saffron Walden homes could be dotted with medieval graffiti

Medieval graffiti

Medieval graffiti - Credit: Archant

Your house may be the last place you’d look for medieval etchings, but according to archaeologist Matthew Champion they could much closer to home. ABIGAIL WEAVING spoke to the author at the Words in Walden festival.

Medieval Graffiti

Medieval Graffiti - Credit: Archant

The tomb of Tutankhamun and the Dead Sea Scrolls – everyone knows them.

But there are plenty of archaeological treasures waiting to be discovered much closer to home.

In our churches, to be precise.

Speaking at the Words in Walden festival, archaeologist Matthew Champion showcased his new book Medieval Graffiti, revealing hidden pasts engraved on the walls of Britain’s churches.

Medieval Graffiti

Medieval Graffiti - Credit: Archant

So far, he has discovered more than 50,000 inscriptions in Norfolk and Suffolk alone, sometimes spending years uncovering graffiti in one building.

“I’ve always loved history and archaeology, ever since I was a small child, and I am now lucky enough to work in an area that I am passionate about,” he told the Reporter.

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“My interest in medieval graffiti happened almost by accident, though. I was involved in a project at Lakenheath church, working on the conservation of medieval wall paintings, and noticed the church also contained what appeared to be really early graffiti.”

But as Matthew found out, hardly anything had been written about these markings, and he soon began spotting them all over the country.

“Looking around other churches I soon realised there were dozens of other sites that contained massive quantities of medieval graffiti, and that almost all of it was unrecorded,” he said.

With most graffiti only visible under bright light though, it is no wonder it is has been so hard to find.

“Some are very lightly scratched into the stones, and you could walk right past many of them every day for years without noticing they were there,” he added.

“What we do is known as a ‘raking light survey’ where we shine strong lights obliquely across the surface of the wall, highlighting even the faintest of marks.

“Then we take our photographs. But as soon as the lights go off again, the inscriptions disappear back into the stonework.”

These inscriptions vary from names and family crests to ‘witch marks’ and animal engravings.

In fact, many churches are covered with ‘ritual protection marks’, designed to ward off evil.

Drawn with a compass, these endless knots, or ‘witch marks’, were thought to trap and confuse demons, which were attracted to lines.

Once captivated, the demon would follow the line to its end, but with no end to reach it would become trapped inside the symbol forever.

As far as favourite markings go though, Matthew finds it difficult to choose.

He said: “I suppose one that means a lot to me is a rather lovely depiction of a medieval ship from Wiveton church in north Norfolk.

“It isn’t a great piece of art in any respects, but if you look closely you can see that the crew are still aboard after more than five centuries of sailing across the stonework.”

It is not difficult to see why Matthew struggles to pick a favourite; each inscription is totally unique with its own untold story.

“We get lots of what might be considered bizarre inscriptions, but perhaps that’s because we are viewing them through modern eyes and from modern perspectives,” he added.

“Perhaps the drawing of an owl wearing a noble-woman’s headdress made perfect sense to the person who drew it on the walls of Stetchworth church back in the fourteenth century?

“Or perhaps the numerous inscriptions of cranky-looking late medieval windmills in Lidgate church had particular significance for the local people?”

Having discovered graffiti at Lakenheath, Matthew organised the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, which sees volunteers across the county help in his search

“The medieval graffiti is fascinating, but the projects could never exist if it wasn’t for the wonderful volunteers who have become involved,” he said.

“They turn out in all weathers to carry out surveys in often freezing cold churches, and always with a smile.”

Now with the Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey underway, Matthew is hoping to eventually uncover every mark, engraving and drawing in the ten thousand medieval churches across the country.

They even extend to our homes. With Saffron Walden’s foundations dating back to the 12th century, fireplaces, beams, and doorframes are likely to be littered with medieval mutterings.

“Once you start, you may not stop,” he warned.

“The best advice I can give is to take a torch with you whenever you visit a church or old building, and take some time to shine the light across the surface of the walls.

“It may not be obvious to the naked eye, but the chances are there are markings somewhere. You never know what you might come across.”

Central to the project though, is the people behind the inscriptions; ordinary people whose only legacy could lie on the wall of the nearby church.

“There are moments when you come across a faint piece of graffiti, probably not seen for over five centuries, and quite possibly the only mark an individual has left on this world,” Matthew added.

“That’s when the hairs go up on the back of your neck. These messages have been waiting there patiently for hundreds of years, and it is always a special moment when you are the first to read the writing on the wall.”