A local community archaeology project that searches Norfolk’s medieval churches for medieval graffiti inscriptions has received national recognition this week with the announcement that it has been award the prestigious ‘Most Innovative’ Award by the national Community Archive and Heritage Group (CAHG). This Award, announced on Thursday at the annual CAHG conference at University College London, is given to the project that the board of judges deems to have taken the most innovative approach to working with heritage and local communities.
The Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey is a volunteer led project established four years ago to undertake the first large scale survey of early graffiti inscriptions in English churches. When the project started it was believed that early graffiti inscriptions were relatively rare; now it is clear that such inscriptions are present in a very large number of English churches – with the Norfolk survey having already recorded over 27,000 images. The judges stated that they were impressed with the significance of the project, which has now been copied in four other counties with new surveys planned in a further three counties; the extent of voluntary participation with over 200 volunteers taking part in Norfolk from a range of backgrounds including volunteers with a previous history of mental health problems; and with the accessibility of the group’s website which will be of interest beyond the archaeological community.
The judges praised the real successes of those who had tackled this ‘new line of historical research’. “Even with no knowledge of the subject, this work drew us in and inspired us”. “It really didn’t all start with Banksy!” they noted. This is the second piece of good news for the project in recent weeks, having recently announced that the project had been successful in their bid for financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“Winning this award really means a very great deal to everyone involved in the project”, states Project Director, Matthew Champion. “It is, of course, wonderful to receive national recognition of the value of the project within the wider heritage world, but it is also great to see the innovation aspects of the project highlighted. When we began this project there really hadn’t been anything quite like it tried before in the UK. We were in uncharted territory as far as community archaeology was concerned and were very keen to try new things. However, we simply didn’t know whether they would work or not. Now, thanks to the many hundreds of hours of hard work and determination put in by all our volunteers, this project is now seen as one of the very best examples of community archaeology in the country. Perhaps most importantly”, concludes Matthew, “what began here in Norfolk is now spreading out, country by county, across the UK.
In an interview with Medievalists.net, Matthew Champion explains the impact this project has had so far: “In the last four years we have recorded over 27000 inscriptions. That is, whichever way you look at it, pretty good. In terms of specific areas of study the results have been equally impressive. Before the project began the number of surviving medieval architectural inscriptions in England numbered about 20. In the last four years we have doubled that number. And as the recent discoveries at Lidgate church have highlighted, it isn’t just the area of medieval architecture that the graffiti inscriptions have the potential to impact upon – it is every area of medieval studies. In short, the projects are changing the way we actually understand the inside of a medieval parish church and, in particular, how members of the medieval congregation interacted with the church as both a building and institution.
“Now here’s the thing. All this has been achieved by looking at approximately 500 churches. Now that is a lot of churches – but it is a tiny percentage of the total number of surviving medieval churches in England. Norfolk alone has over 650. Having looked at the results of individual surveys across the country I have to conclude that we are likely to make many, many more such discoveries, and that the resulting database will contain hundreds of thousands of individual inscriptions. It is, in effect, a whole new corpus of medieval material simply waiting to be studied.”
The project has already surveyed over 250 of the county’s 650+ medieval churches and made a number of nationally important discoveries, most notable architectural inscriptions at Binham Priory that date back to the middle decades of the thirteenth century. Amongst the many thousands of inscriptions recorded by the NMGS volunteers are medieval prayers and curses, portraits and caricatures, ritual protection marks and stylised animals. “What we are finding is very diverse”, states Matthew Champion, “and it really reflects how different the medieval Church was from that which we know today. Writing on the walls appears to have been commonplace – and accepted. We still have nearly 400 Norfolk churches to survey. Who knows what else might be out there awaiting discovery?”.
Further information on the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, and information on how you can volunteer to help, can be found on the project website – www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk