Medieval Graffiti in the Waveney Valley

LogoI’m Andrew. I’m not an archaeologist. There, that’s got that out of the way.

Sometime around November last year I started seeing lots of posts on Twitter about starting an archaeology group in the Waveney Valley in Norfolk & Suffolk, where I live. These posts, it turned out, were Lorna’s first attempts to get the word out about community archaeology in the Valley. I was interested and we batted ideas about over the winter and into spring of this year.

On March 23rd the Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group had its first meeting in a snowstorm in Bungay. One hundred and four people turned up. After the meeting we took a deep breath and went to the pub, where much good work has since been done.

Since that first snowy meeting one of the most popular activities we’ve been involved in has been hunting for medieval graffiti in the churches in the valley. We’ve been working with (and inspired by) Matt Champion of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey to find, photograph and record medieval and post medieval graffiti, which brings me neatly to the 2013 Day of Archaeology.

On Friday July 26th Helen and I went for a bumble round the churches of the Hempnall group in South Norfolk, and on Saturday 27th July about 20 of our members looked over churches in Broome, Ditchingham, Hedenham and Earsham, and I guess between us from those two days we’ve got literally hundreds of pictures of graffiti from early medieval times through to the 1940s and later.
I’ve picked out some of the more unusual and quirky ones here (I was going to say off the wall ones..) to give you a flavour of what’s there to be found.

Some of them are likely very common, but based on my massive seven or eight weeks experience of medieval graffiti I still like them, so there.

JpegFritton church, a star of David, two crosses, a spear and some hatching.

JpegFritton church, a spear

JpegFritton church, two linked circles, similar to later linked circles on a tomb at Hardwick.

JpegShelton church, a possible merchant’s mark

JpegHardwick church, May 19th 1688 and four linked circles on an alabaster tomb. 1688 was the year of the Glorious Revolution, so maybe more research needed here.

JpegHardwick church, a hex mark on the head of an angel or cherub on the same tomb.

JpegDitchingham church TS 1727(?) carved by the west door. The S is back to front.

Jpeg P1000047Hedenham church Face of a bearded man

hitler1Earsham church Hitler

JpegEarsham church Sweethearts of 1953?

JpegEarsham church –  A bicycle

6 thoughts on “Medieval Graffiti in the Waveney Valley

  1. HJ says:

    I noticed an intriguing headstone in a churchyard in Cornwall which looked to me to have been graffitied in 1731 but I wasn’t sure if in fact it was an amateur attempt at a headstone since it completely covers it. From reading your article I suspect it is in fact graffiti, possibly on the back of the headstone (I was so intrigued by what I saw that I forgot to look on the other side, but looking back I think all the other headstones faced the other way).

    At what date/age do you think graffiti becomes an interesting historical item as opposed to an anti-social defacement?

  2. Thanks for the feedback. Do you have any recollection of the content of the graffiti? For instance, was it mainly script or symbols or a bit of everything? Whereabouts in Cornwall was this, as I’m off down there briefly in September and I’d love to have a look?

    I think I’ll leave your second question to more knowledgeable folk than I, but there is a theory that a lot of medieval church graffiti, particularly devotional graffiti, was considered acceptable and was done with the full knowledge of the priest at the time.

    In more modern times, I don’t know. What may have been considered as defacement in 1850 may well be an interesting historical insight today, and I would certainly record it. The graffito of Hitler in the article is a good example. It was almost certainly done during the Second World War by the boy whose job it was to pump the organ, and he would certainly have got at least a clip round the ear for his troubles. But at that time Hitler was the great bogeyman, a figure the entire nation was united against, so a caricature of him might not have been considered such a bad thing. Interestingly, no attempt has been made to sand it off or cover it up.

  3. HJ says:

    It was in the churchyard of Mawnan, on the Helford River south-west of Mawnan Smith. From memory, it was one of the first headstones on the left of the short path to the side of the church from the gate (but I’m not certain of that). It’s a round face above a body made of an inverted triangle, with the lines extended for arms. On the left is a capital R and on the right a capital B. Underneath, centred, is the date 1731. The numbers and letters look authentic to me i.e. from the 1700s.

    Looking again at my photograph I can see another engraved headstone behind it, so my conjecture that the graffiti may be on the back of the headstone seems incorrect.

    I can email you the photograph if you’d like to see it. I could send it to the gmail address for the group.

  4. Thank you, it would be great if you can send the picture. The Waveney Archaeology group email address will be fine. Look forward to seeing the picture.

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