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Mysteries of historical graffiti

Graffiti carved into the stonework at Bodiam Castle, East Sussex
Graffiti carved into the stonework at Bodiam Castle, East Sussex | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Graffiti can help shine a light on the past, revealing the lives of people often overlooked by history. Discover the techniques archaeologists are using to uncover inscriptions and marks at places in our care and learn more about different types of historical graffiti, from mason’s marks to the etchings of early tourists.

Types of historical graffiti

Spanning across many centuries, historical graffiti can often help document an alternative social history for places defined by the powerful and wealthy. These are some of the types of graffiti that have been found at the places in our care.

A close up of graffiti carved into the stonework at Tattershall Castle
Graffiti in the stonework at Tattershall Castle | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Memorial graffiti

In the 18th century ruined buildings and castles were seen as romantic places to visit. Early tourists carved their names on the walls of such places. The high-quality nature of these inscriptions shows that at the time graffiti wasn't seen as anti-social or an act of vandalism as it is today.

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So often these are the stories of people forgotten by history but finally revealed again through archaeology.

A quote by Tom DommettNational Trust Head of Historic Environment

Historical graffiti at Nymans, Sussex

A rocky cliff face on the estate at Nymans is covered with names, dates, pictures, initials and other curious markings. One rock face in particular has hundreds of overlapping inscriptions, the earliest of which date back at least to the early 1700s, and possibly earlier.

Who made the inscriptions

The remains of pits and quarries where men dug for clay and ore can be found in the woodland at Nymans. Were the inscriptions made by the charcoal burners who worked in the forest and operated the Tudor furnace? Perhaps they were made by visitors on their way to the mansion at Nymans, pausing on a 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.

Recording the inscriptions

An accurate record of the inscriptions has been made using laser scanning, which combines millions of measurements to recreate the rock face digitally. This helps us study it in close detail and make it accessible to people online. We’re tracing each individual inscription to build up a database of names, dates and initials to find out more about the people behind them and how their stories connect to Nymans.

Explore the Sketchfab model to see the inscriptions on the rock face.

Historical graffiti at Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

At Tattershall Castle, volunteers working with James Wright of the University of Nottingham have come across various marks ranging across livery, local wildlife, and witchcraft.

Political tagging

An etching of a ragged staff, the livery badge of the Duke of Warwick, Sir Thomas Neville, can be found on the walls of the keep at Tattershall Castle. Sir Thomas married the lord of Tattershall’s niece for political benefits at the castle in 1453. It’s possible this carving was made by one of the Neville household during the wedding festivities, hinting at the castle’s history.

Civil war graffiti

In the early years of the English Civil War, Tattershall became a royalist garrison. One graffiti mark, stating ‘James Gibson 1642’, could have been made by a member of the castle garrison during that turbulent time.

Protection symbols at Tattershall

The team also found a compass mark, carved to protect the building and occupants from possession by demons or witches.

Graffiti documents an alternative social history for the castle. Most of it is, literally, set in stone as opposed to on the page.

A quote by Rachel Burgess Graffiti Project volunteer
Graffiti depicting a postmill, under UV light near the fireplace in the Entrance Hall at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire
Isaac Newton etching under UV light at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Isaac Newton etching at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire

Woolsthorpe Manor was the childhood home of Issac Newton, where he split light using a prism in his ‘crucial experiment’ and changed the way we think about and use light forever. Newton was well known for sketching and making notes on the walls of his rooms.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging

Through cutting-edge light technology, conservator Chris Pickup from Nottingham Trent University was able to survey the walls of the 400-year-old manor in painstaking detail. He discovered the etching of a windmill thought to have been hand-carved by the young scientist in the kitchen. The picture is thought to have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill during Newton’s childhood.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging, or RTI, is a technique that which uses light to capture the shape and colour of a surface not visible to the naked eye.

It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe.

A quote by Chris PickupNottingham Trent University Doctoral Researcher

Graffiti at Lyveden, Northamptonshire

In 2016 a survey, undertaken by volunteers, found a considerable number of graffiti inscriptions dating from the late seventeenth century to the present day. The very earliest inscriptions at Lyveden date back to the construction period of the lodge, most of which were created by the masons themselves.

Consecration crosses

A number of the lower frieze shields that run around the building contain large compass drawn designs across their surfaces, similar to the ‘daisy wheel’ protection symbol found inside the building. Given the size and the use of professional tools it appears highly likely that they were created by the masons during the construction phase.

The markings all appear to be remarkably similar in size, form and distribution, strongly suggesting they were created as a single entity, essentially forming a set of markings. It has been suggested that they could be consecration crosses.

Spiritual cleansing

During the Middle Ages it was the custom of the Church to formally set aside the church building and dedicate it to the worship of God. The spiritual cleansing of the new building was undertaken by the local bishop, and was known as the act of consecration. This raises a number of questions concerning the intended use for Lyveden.

Archaeologist revealing a mosaic floor in the northern wing at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire

Archaeological work

We look after many rich and diverse archaeological sites. Archaeology helps us to learn more about them and protect them for the future.

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