Written in stone: mapping Nymans' historic graffiti

Published: 18 March 2021

Last update: 18 March 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Tom Dommett, Head of historic environment Tom Dommett Head of historic environment
View of the forecourt and house with dovecote on the left at Nymans, West Sussex

In this blog, Tom Dommett discusses recent work undertaken at Nymans in West Sussex to record historic graffiti inscribed on the rocks in the woodlands on the estate, some of which dates back hundreds of years. Having previously worked as an Archaeologist and a Consultancy Manager in London and the South-East, Tom is now the National Trust’s Head of Historic Environment.

The woods on the Nymans Estate in West Sussex are pretty quiet these days – a great spot to walk the dog, watch the birds on the lake or listen to the water gurgling down the ghylls. But it hasn’t always been this way: recent surveys have shown just how busy these woods once were. Subtle platforms terraced into the slopes were the site of charcoal making and of temporary shelters for the men who coppiced the woodland and turned hazel rods into items such as fencing panels.

Visitors in the woodland at Nymans, West Sussex
Visitors in the woodland at Nymans, West Sussex
Visitors in the woodland at Nymans, West Sussex

Small depressions, now filled with silt and sawdust, were once open saw pits where larger trees were laboriously sawn into manageable lengths. Pits and quarries pockmark the ground where men dug for clay and ore. At one edge of the wood a large levelled area and pond are all that’s left of an 18th-century kiln where the clay was pressed into moulds and fired into bricks. At the other end, a large lake was dammed during the 16th century to create a head of water to power a blast furnace that turned the ore into iron.

Smoke and heat, calloused hands and sweating brows, digging and hauling and loading and making. So often these are the stories of people forgotten by history but finally revealed again through archaeology. At Nymans we even know some of their names – they are literally etched in stone.

Rock face with graffiti inscriptions at Nymans, West Sussex
Rock face with graffiti inscriptions at Nymans, West Sussex
Rock face with graffiti inscriptions at Nymans, West Sussex

Recording the inscriptions

The rocky cliff faces at the edge of the steep-sided valleys in West Sussex are covered with names, dates, pictures, initials and other curious markings. As the rocks are also protected habitats (a site of Special Scientific Interest or SSSI), and home to delicate flora including many rare bryophytes, we ask visitors to not climb the rocks or go in search of more carvings. A key objective of this recording project at Nymans has been to create a virtual platform through which visitors can explore this wonderful place, without risking damage to the sensitive ecology or the historic graffiti.

One rock face in particular bears hundreds of overlapping inscriptions, the earliest of which date back at least to the early 1700s, and possibly earlier. Are these the charcoal burners who worked in the forest, the same men who operated the Tudor furnace? Perhaps they were made by visitors on their way to the mansion at Nymans, pausing on their stroll down to the boating lake. Some of the inscriptions could be from First World War servicemen who built the ornamental cascades in the woodland.

We’re hoping to find out the real story behind the graffiti.

The first stage of the project was to make an accurate record of the inscriptions using laser scanning, which combines millions of measurements to recreate the rock-face digitally so we can study it in close detail and make it accessible to people online. Our next step has been to transcribe all the carvings.

Through an online platform, anyone who wanted to be part of this research project could access the digital model of the rock-face and trace each of the individual inscriptions to build up a database of names, dates and initials. We’ll use the database to find out more about the people behind the inscriptions and how their stories link with the wider history of the landscape at Nymans.

Detail view of the inscriptions at Nymans, West Sussex
Detail view of the inscriptions at Nymans, West Sussex
Detail view of the inscriptions at Nymans, West Sussex

Our work so far

We’re currently working to find out if there are specific clusters or periods of activity represented on this rock face. Perhaps from our project, we’ll identify evidence for apotropaic markings – signs of ritual protection. If we can distinguish different styles of graffiti we'll know how much it changes over time and whether the style can be used to indicate a period of time where none is recorded.

You might want to dig a little deeper yourself and find out more about the inscriptions on the rocks left by those people who have lived, worked on and visited the estate over the centuries by exploring the Sketchfab model. That's something quite special.

Find out more