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Church Graffiti: the Unofficial Writing on the Wall (S Devon Branch)

Thu. 16 February 2023 at 2:15 pm

£2 – £4

An illustrated talk by Rebecca Ireland.

Rebecca is a freelance archaeological researcher with an MA in landscape archaeology. She is currently looking at historic graffiti in the South West.

About her talk, she writes:

A recent growth area in archaeological/anthropological research has been the cataloguing and investigation of instances of ‘graffiti’ on medieval and early modern buildings of all dates and levels of society. A particularly rich and accessible source of these marks is often (perhaps to the surprise of many people) the local church. Usually the oldest building in the area, often with readily accessible surfaces ripe for decorating, churches have been tagged repeatedly by graffiti artists of all levels of skill for, possibly, the whole of their existence.

The reasons for making many of the marks is no longer clear to us. Some are obviously drawings of people and objects from everyday life. Some are highly ornate, others as simple as a few crossed lines. A great many would have been highly visible, especially those scratched through the paintwork at times when church interiors were brightly decorated.

Rebecca is also a member of the team searching for graffiti in Kents Cavern.
See the details on Kents Cavern website, here. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Ireland.

DA members £2, non-members £4.
Pay in cash on the door or pre-book online via TicketSource here.

Report on the talk

Local geologist and excavator of Kent’s Cavern, William Pengelly, was the first to identify historical graffiti. Now with the development of technology, especially cameras in mobile phones, discovering historical graffiti is much easier and researching it has become popular.

Apart from masons’ marks, there are several common marks on church entrances and windows. People in the sixteenth century and earlier were terrified about the walking dead and the devil and consequently were keen to protect their sacred buildings from this evil. A common symbol found is an X, sometimes with lines enclosing it, representing Christianity and a fence against evil. Some churches have a cross like a large plus sign which again seems to be intended as a sign of protection.

Another common symbol is a daisy wheel, often found around fonts, and is representative of St Margaret, the patron saint of expectant mothers. This is a very fine and decorative piece of art work and is certainly not vandalism. It is more a form of informal reverence.

Another common sign is a “marian” which looks like two crossed “V’s” – does it represent “Virgo Viriginum? Is it some sort of prayer to the Virgin Mary to protect your building?

At Imber, on Salisbury Plain, one wall of the bell tower is covered with musical annotation but no-one can understand it! Vandalism is obvious in the many hearts and initials carved out in the stone work within many churches.

A five pointed star could indicate the five wounds of Christ or the five virtues. This symbol is often popular around Church doorways and could have meant different things to different people at different times.

Ships carved into the stone are particularly common in Devon and are thought to ask for safety for your ship.

Apart from the difficulty in understanding the symbols, it is also often difficult to date them, though some are accompanied by a date of engraving. If it is known when the building was first constructed, then the graffiti must be older.

Rebecca is currently engaged in a project recording names and dates in Kents Cavern and trying to trace and learn about these people who had entered the cavern and left their mark.

Members and visitors who heard Rebecca’s talk will now be looking on any church or old building for historical graffiti and trying to work out what the symbols mean!

Chris Reader
February 2023


Thu. 16 February 2023
2:15 pm
£2 – £4
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South Devon Branch
Annie Maltby: 07771 277761


Newton’s Place
43 Wolborough St
Newton Abbot, Devon TQ12 1JQ