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Discovering Medieval Graffiti: An Interview with Matthew Champion

medieval graffiti bookSome people might believe that we have already discovered nearly everything about the Middle Ages that we can find. However, a project started five years ago by Matthew Champion is proving that there is a vast amount of medieval artwork waiting to be seen. His new book, Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, is offering readers a first glimpse into images from the Middle Ages that have been forgotten about for centuries.

Matthew Champion is the Project Director of the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, an entirely volunteer led, community archaeology project, which has been exploring the hundreds of churches in the county in eastern England. Looking for inscriptions that haven been etched into the walls from hundreds of years ago, the team has already discovered 28,000 examples of medieval graffiti.

Their discoveries have made national headlines and earned them prestigious awards for the efforts to find and preserve England’s heritage.

We interviewed Matthew Champion, talking about how the project started and his new book:

When you started the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey project back in 2010, what were your realistic expectations on how much you would have find? I think everyone was surprised by the sheer volume of images you and your team have uncovered, but when did you realize that this was going to be far bigger than you had expected.

To be honest, I first had an idea that there was far more out there to be discovered as soon as I walked in to my very first survey church – All, Saints, Litcham in central Norfolk. I had chosen the church because it was already known to contain at least one early graffiti inscription, and I was interested to see if there were a couple more there that might have been overlooked. I actually went along with one of the churchwardens, an old friend, who assured me that after over a decade caring for the building he could assure me that, aside from the one known inscription, there was really nothing to see. And then we started to shine our torches across the walls and realised that almost every surface was quite literally covered with early graffiti; several hundred inscriptions that had never before been recorded. We found demons, faces, hand outlines, names, dates and prayers – just about every type of graffiti you can imagine. The best moment was the discovery of a really beautiful little pelta design, which eventually became the survey logo. It was located at eye level, about three feet in front of the pew that my friendly churchwarden had sat in every Sunday for over a decade – and he hadn’t noticed a thing. After Litcham I realised that this simply wasn’t something I could do alone, and it was at that point that the whole thing was transformed in to a community archaeology project. Having now surveyed over half of the counties 650+ medieval churches we have recorded in excess of 28,000 never previously recorded inscriptions.

How does you and your team go about searching a medieval church for graffiti? Since these are images that have been noticed for hundreds of years, I would expect that they would be somewhat difficult to find?

That’s what really surprises a lot of people. The fact that these inscriptions have been hidden in plain sight for centuries. Many are made up of only very light scratches on the stone surface and, in normal circumstances, you could pass them by without noticing a thing. However, our techniques are all very straightforward and simple. All we do is shine powerful lights across the surface of the stonework at a very acute angle, throwing any markings into high relief. Known as a ‘raking light’ survey it can pick up even the most shallow inscription, which we then record using digital imagery. However, once the lights are turned off the inscriptions disappear once more. What you have to remember of course is that this wasn’t always the case. Medieval churches, almost without exception, were originally covered in paint and pigment. The graffiti inscriptions were cut through that paint to reveal the pale stone beneath. As a result, when they were first made, the inscriptions would have been one of the most obvious things you saw when you walked into a medieval church.

Multiple daisy wheel copy – A complex compass drawn symbol from All Saints church,  Litcham. Such designs are aongst the most common types of graffiti recorded by the survey  and are believed to have functioned as ritual protection markings – designed to ward off the  ‘evil eye’. Photo courtesy Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Multiple daisy wheel copy – A complex compass drawn symbol from All Saints church,
Litcham. Such designs are aongst the most common types of graffiti recorded by the survey
and are believed to have functioned as ritual protection markings – designed to ward off the
‘evil eye’. Photo courtesy Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey

Your book Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches is coming out today. What prompted you to write it?

I would love to say that it was the offer of a massive wad of cash from the publishers, but I’d be lying. The thing is that all the tens of thousands of inscriptions we have discovered are going to lead to the publication of numerous academic volumes in the years to come, with enough material to keep researchers busy for decades. However, with so much more work to be done those big catalogue volumes are still some years away. What I wanted to do in the meantime was to produce a book that largely helps set the scene for those books. This book is very much a book concerned with looking at the bigger picture, putting some of the finds into context, and telling some of the stories that lie behind the creation of the graffiti inscriptions. The book is aimed at the general reader in the hope that they will be enthused enough to go and discover more for themselves. The wonderful thing about the graffiti survey is that is has been largely undertaken by volunteers, many of whom never thought for a moment that they could undertake ‘real’ archaeology. They have, and they continue to do so each and every week. The book is really a celebration of their dedication.

Your survey is only covering one county in England – I think there many people around the United Kingdom are wondering what graffiti might be etched into the walls of their medieval churches. One advice could you give to other groups that might be interested in starting their own projects?

It’s true that we only began in one county – but things have moved on a great deal in the last year or so. The project has been very lucky in being recognised with a number of national awards, and the resulting publicity soon made it clear that there was scope to expand what we were doing to other parts of England. We have also been very lucky in securing limited funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. At the present time we now have fully fledged surveys in Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire, Surrey, Kent, Wiltshire, East Sussex, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire – with new counties joining almost every month. We are now working closely with the Council for British Archaeology to investigate the possibility of expanding the survey nationwide. Funding, however, is always the problem. All the new county surveys are largely based on the model adopted in Norfolk and Suffolk, being entirely non-intrusive in nature, and we offer help to anyone wishing to establish a new survey – so feel free to get in touch. These days we give guidance on how to undertake a survey and ensure that no harm comes to the buildings or the inscriptions themselves.

Finally, of the thousands of graffiti that you have discovered so far, which one has been the most memorable for you?

The really difficult question. To be honest I have so many different favourites, for so many different reasons. The discovery of the inscription that may have been the work of the medieval poet John Lydgate certainly stands out as one of those moments when the hairs on the back of your neck go up. However, the discovery of the five massive architectural inscriptions at Binham Priory, dating back to the 1240s, was also truly special. It was actually during the very first weeks of the graffiti survey and took many, many hours to decipher exactly what I was seeing on the walls. As soon as I realised I was looking at the design sketches of a master mason who was responsible for one of THE most innovative pieces of thirteenth century architecture in England, and that I was probably the first person to truly see them in over seven centuries, I truly understood just how much the study of these strange sketches on the walls could teach us about the medieval world. But my absolute favourite? Far less impressive I’m afraid. It is a piece of late medieval ship graffiti carved into the walls of Norwich cathedral. It dates to the second half of the fifteenth century and shows a simple single masted trading vessel that would have been a common sight around the English coasts at the time. I think it is the everyday simplicity of it, the mundane nature of the subject, that really brings alive for me the fact that, many centuries ago, someone stood exactly where I stood – and started to carve the walls.

Click here to visit the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey website

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