Mysteries of historical graffiti
- Expert curated
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A series of witchmarks, believed to ward off evil spirits, were discovered in a room built to accommodate James I at Knole following the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
Discover how religious persecution, treason and debt stopped Tresham’s vision from being fulfilled and why Lyveden stands as a reminder of his act of quiet and creative rebellion.
Discover the history of Bodiam Castle. Find out who built it, its royal connections and what historic graffiti can tell us about the castle’s past.
Learn about the mysterious markings our ancestors carved into doorways, fireplaces and joists to ward off evil and protect their homes from witches and demons.
From champagne bottles to deliberately blocked tunnels, learn about some of the discoveries at places in our care and the approaches we're using to protect them for future generations.