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Graffiti – Old and New.

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Last weekend I had the chance to indulge in two of my favourite things, art and archaeology, at the same time. As part of the Format Festival in Derby I was able to take in an exhibition including NASA images of the moon and some of the landings and catch some of the graffiti that lines the walls of the cathedral tower. Not much to write home about you might think, but graffiti is something of a hot topic in the archaeological world at the moment. There are a number of projects that are studying graffiti on a range of buildings, from dwellings to churches. Just Google ‘Medieval Graffiti images’ and see what I mean.

Graffiti Projects

The subject of graffiti as a means of tapping into the past has a long history. You might be surprised to learn that historians have been looking at it for over 100 years. Some of the earliest examples of systematic surveying include the work at St Mary’s in Ashwell, Hertfordshire. Some counties have quite large numbers of churches surveyed to date e.g. Suffolk. Do follow the links to find out more about these projects.

Closer to home, our friend Matt Beresford is working on a Notts & Derbyshire Medieval Graffiti Survey. Even Greater Manchester has it’s own Graffiti Survey. It isn’t about modern graffiti, ‘tags’ and territory, rather is is about marks made and evidence left by a largely illiterate and unrepresented population in the past. The majority of people do not feature in many of the ‘official’ historic records. Making marks on buildings was one way in which they could quite literally leave their mark as having lived.

The survey is mainly surveying buildings erected before 1700. Volunteers are looking for a range of marks which could be scratched, etched, pecked into wood, stone or metal work. They also look for burns into wooden features such as doors/frames etc. Many of the marks are what are called apotropaic or ‘magic’ marks, associated with religious or superstitious ideas and often act as protection against harm or evil befalling the person who made it.

The survey has been exploring churches in the southern area of Greater Manchester including St Wilfred’s in Northenden. members of the team have found a range of marks, and in some surprising locations – including the roof! Here there were several ‘drawings’ of ‘feet’. It seems people drew around their shoe and then added symbols. The examples at St Wilfred’s can be dated to around 1650, when the lead roof was installed. There is some sense of urgency as the older lead roofs, such as St Wilfred’s, are nearing the end of the useful life and many are being replaced before being surveyed for such evidence.

Derby Cathedral Graffiti

Ok, back to the scene of last weekend’s encounter with graffiti. Not medieval it must be admitted, as much of the cathedral is of 18th century construction, having been demolished in the 1720’s due to it’s poor state of repair! However, some of the tower remained upstanding and dates to the 16th century.

The tower had a range of graffiti, covering over 200 years that I could see. I’ve put some of them in a slideshow below. As you will see, there is an example which pre-dates the building of the current church/cathedral. It is difficult to tell on a quick look as to whether or not the date of 1677 related to the monogram and/or the large face nearby. A much closer examination is needed for this to become clearer. However, it is interesting to see such a range of graffiti in such a relatively small space. It is certainly worth another visit and a closer inspection.

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