Here be Dragons - Recording and recreating Medieval Church Graffiti


Recently, I was lucky enough to photograph an unusual heritage project. Medieval Church Graffiti was previously regarded as merely a form of vandalism. Now Lincolnshire is one of the few counties with a group actively recording this historical form of expression.

Brian Porter from Lincoln Archaeology Group is leading a project to survey, record and photograph medieval graffiti in all Lincolnshire’s 600 churches. These secret carvings include human figures, real and mythical animals, ships, symbols. Some are a request for a blessing, some a form of thanks, many we just don’t fully understand yet.

Finding these mysterious carving can be difficult. They often take the form of shallow scratches, easily overlooked. Luckily it’s possible to use an old photographer’s trick - side lighting - a low angled light source designed to bring out detail on a flat or slightly curved surface.

LED panel lights and even mobile phones work well. Once you get the knack you’ll be spotting signs, symbols and little carved people everywhere. This medieval graffiti figure, (right) with his wonderful pointed shoes, was recorded by Brian at Great Gonerby Church, but was quite difficult to spot in ordinary daylight.

But how easy was it for our forebears to create this medieval church graffiti? Brian and archaeologist Charles Simpson, from Banks Newton Heritage, decided to do find out. As part of the Bricks and Bones Arts and Heritage programme in Lincoln, volunteers were introduced to real examplesof graffiti at St Peter’s at Gowts, a beautiful church dating from the Anglo-Saxon period. They were then invited to have a go but obviously not on the church itself!

Slabs of sandstone sourced from Lincoln Cathedral’s own quarry were used to accurately recreate the typical stone surface on which these pictures were scored. Tools? Hammer and chisel? No, just an iron nail is enough to scratch a design on the soft surface.

To photograph the results I used the same side lighting technique back in the studio. A Kaiser photo copy stand to help keep the camera parallel, but you can easily use a tripod or even hand hold the camera. A low angled flash brings out the detail. You can see the difference between the two versions Ian Anderson's wonderful pug.

The left picture has straight flash. The picture on the right has the flash set at a low angle, bringing out the texture and removing distracting surface dust.

Getting involved in volunteer projects like this is a great way to practise and expand your photographic knowledge for free. Learning how to capture different, sometime rather tricky subjects, gives you new techniques can be applied elsewhere, and there’s always someone on hand to answer your questions.

Want to discover some forgotten medieval graffiti for yourself? Volunteers always welcome. Contact Brian at brian.porter@lincolnarchaeology.org.uk

Full training will be given. With over 400 churches in Lincolnshire still to be surveyed there’s bound to be one near you. Happy hunting!

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All images copyright: Lynne McEwan 2018