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Making Your Mark:

The first National Symposium for the study of Historic Graffiti

Saturday 5th October 2019

The University of Southampton

Announcing the first national symposium for the study of historic graffiti, supported by the University of Southampton, The Council for British Archaeology, National Trust Archaeology.

In 1967 Cambridge University Press published a book entitled ‘English Medieval Graffiti’, written by the historian and church enthusiast Violet Pritchard. The book focussed upon historic graffiti inscriptions found largely in East Anglian churches, attempting to give an overview of what was present at numerous sites, and offering interpretations of what Pritchard had discovered. This work was, until very recent years, the only full-length work published upon the subject. However, the study of historic graffiti as a resource has a far longer pedigree.

Even the very term ‘graffiti’ has its origins in the study of archaeology, being adopted to describe the ancient informal inscriptions being recorded by archaeologists at ancient Roman sites in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Since that time almost every generation of historians and archaeologists have recorded and examined historic graffiti in a wide variety of contexts. From scratched inscriptions on Roman pottery, to pencil graffiti from the Second World War, historic graffiti has fascinated and enthralled, allowing new and personal insights into the lives and times of those who literally ‘made their mark’.

However, it is only in the last decade, with the advent of digital photography and similar new technologies, that the study of historic graffiti inscriptions has taken on a new and growing impetus. The rise of volunteer led surveys of historic buildings, supported by organisations such as the Council for British Archaeology, has begun to generate a mass of data and information, allowing these markings to be examined within a far wider context. In similar vein, organisations such as the National Trust have recognised the potential of historic graffiti for widening the public interpretation of historic sites, and engaging with their own staff and volunteer base. These increased levels of interest have been mirrored by the growth of academic awareness in the subject of historic graffiti, with several studies already published, and a very large number currently in progress.

These advances in the study of historic graffiti, and the remarkable inscriptions being recorded at historic sites across the UK, have caught the attention of both the media and the public. The ‘citizen science’ elements of many of the surveys, and the promotion of volunteer involvement, has ensured that the attention in this field of study is likely to continue to develop in the decades to come.

As such we are launching the first in what we anticipate will become a regular program of historic graffiti symposia, to include academics, archaeologists, scholars, and enthusiasts, to discuss the work that is under way. These symposia aim to empower all those involved, and further the academic study of historic graffiti, in a continuing partnership that benefits all who participate.

You can follow the symposium using the hashtag #historicgraffiti2019 on twitter

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Registration 9:00

Welcome 9:45

First Session 10:00


Brian Porter

Choirboys and a Crocodile?

It is natural for humans to need to make sense of the world around them and to create order from chaos. Historic graffiti is a subject ripe for errors misnomers and misinterpretations.

By challenging our assumptions and preconceptions, we can seek alternative or additional interpretations for graffiti, often deducing there is no single clear meaning to them. Instantly giving a name to something may divert the mind away from other explanations, but challenging this can be done by researching different sources of written information, widespread discussions or even by chance conversations.

New life can be brought to old graffiti by adding value to their meaning and furthering their cultural significance, as well as retaining an air of mystery. This makes them ripe for presentation and story-telling aimed at a wide variety of new and existing audiences.

Examples will be presented from historic graffiti recorded in Lincolnshire to demonstrate some interpretation pitfalls and successes including explanations for the title!

It is hoped that this will offer encouragement to graffiti enthusiasts to continue developing and presenting tales of human interest using historic graffiti.


Anthea Hawdon

Gaming up the Walls

‘Merels’ is a strategy game of which there are several variants, a well- known version of which is Nine Mens Morris. These types of game were popular pastimes in the Middle Ages, although their origin is much older. Merels boards and similar versions are found as historic graffiti in both sacred and secular buildings, and found on both horizontal and vertical surfaces. This paper will give an overall history of merels boards and explores the types and symbols of gaming boards which can be found in religious contests using case studies found with a sample of country churches of Essex. The spatial distribution of these boards will be compared with other known apotropaic marks inscribed as graffiti, and whether merel-type graffiti can be considered apotropaic in their own right or are merely prosaic. Deeper interpretation will be applied to aid understanding of the symbolism within merels boards and it is hoped that further debate will be stimulated and prompt further recording of these fascinating graffiti forms.


Michael J. Emmons, Jr.

Historic Graffiti in Early America: A Comparative Analysis & Contextual Overview

Highlighting both similarities and differences in markings found in America and England, this paper explores several interpretive themes based on the careful documentation of 1000s of historic graffiti, found in hundreds of buildings, spanning the east coast of the United States. Approaching the graffiti phenomenon from an ‘Atlantic World’ perspective, while focusing on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century graffiti, this 20-minute presentation highlights familiar patterns such as ship graffiti, daisy wheels/hexfoils, and other common inscriptions such as names, dates, houses, and people—while also exploring divergent trends in America, including a high volume of sexually-themed graffiti, and, on the other hand, an almost complete absence of Marian marks. Rather than engaging in simple comparison, however, this paper showcases a number of thematic approaches to my study of American historic graffiti—including ideas of desire/longing, community building, liminal and contested spaces, writing culture, and historic preservation.

Coffee Break

Second session 11:20


Mike and Charlie Wray

Moniker—Mark of the American Hobo

The Historic Graffiti Society USA ( presents a popular introduction to hobo graffiti in the United States.

A great migration of hoboes began in the 1870s, and continued for over 100 years. Hoboes

assumed a moniker (road name) for both identity and anonymity. Monikers were often based on a home town, nationality, or physical characteristic. As they rode the railroads, hoboes marked their monikers with date and direction of travel to inform fellow hoboes of their travels.

Previously unpublished photographs recorded over the past five years illustrate chalked,

penciled, carved, inscribed, and painted marks—from coin‐size marks scratched in marble toilet partitions to billboard‐size monikers painted on bridges and warehouses.

“A‐No. 1” and “Tex‐KT” were America’s most famous hoboes. A‐No. 1 rode the rails from 1883 to 1914, and Tex‐KT from 1915 to 1960 or beyond. We use contemporary books and

newspapers to describe their life on the road—riding the rails, the hobo jungle, sent to jail,

mooching for food—and details of how and where they made their marks.

We also comment on the language of “secret signs” often attributed to hoboes, that we believe is much exaggerated.


Alison Fearn

Remembering Place – the archaeology of name-date graffiti at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire

The 18th century saw the emergence of elite tourism, with the Ton – the cream of aristocratic Georgian Society – visiting the romantic parks and residences of their peers, engaging with both architecture and landscape as part of the wider aesthetic of the Picturesque. Later, the Victorians embraced cultural tourism with vigour, increasing access to the countryside via the emergent railways. Social enrichment and a society imbued with ideas of Improvement, exploration and learning ensured a culture where people were all too ready to leave their mark on monuments and ruins, in buildings and in caves.

Creswell Crags is on the periphery of such a landscape, it remains part of the Welbeck Estate, once home to the Dukes of Portland. The Crags contain several limestone caves, of which the three largest show continuity of use over millennia, Pin Hole, Church Hole and particularly Robin Hood Cave have been the focus of local folklore and of graffiti making. This paper explores themes of memory, place and ontologies through the proliferation of name and date graffiti within the Creswell Caves.


Elizabeth Sage

Jaytalking: Paris, graffiti, and urinals

During the late nineteenth century, Parisian urinals were battlegrounds between city officials, police officers and ordinary Parisians, who did more than use them for their original intent. Urinals became spaces upon which citizens could graffiti their political complaints, jokes and insults, frustrating both the officials anxious to hide the natural act of relief within attractive public conveniences and the authorities charged with policing them. In a city offering many spaces where graffiti could be posted and read, urinals represented a remarkably popular site of communication which diverted or hijacked (the original term, coined by Situationist Guy Debord, would have been détourné) the intended purpose of the cast-iron urinoir, turning it into a space for self-expression. This paper will explore this graffiti, collected by the Paris police and now housed in the Archives de la Prefecture de la Police de Paris, and connect it to the phenomenon of “jaytalking,” a term used by urban theorist Andy Merrifield to describe anonymous communication, whether written or spoken, of a surprising, unforeseen, creative, and prohibited type that happens in forbidden public places, that avoids the powers-that-be, and that flaunts the rules dictating what type of speech is appropriate, and where speech can happen.


Olivia Elder

Roman graffiti: ‘Incisive commentary: voices in ancient Roman graffiti’

Keynote Speaker



Third Session 14:00


Ziad M. Morsy

Leaving a mark: pre-modern boat graffiti on a Middle Kingdom tombs at Bani Hasan, Egypt

During fieldwork in Bani Hassan in 2015, I was working with a group of international researchers to 3D scan 8 different archaeological sites in order to develop a 3D model of these sites that will be used in teaching archaeology students. The VirCult was a Tempus funded project, its main objective is to establish virtual reality academic system for Egyptian cultural heritage education and online virtual campus targeting students, archaeologists, tourist guides and Egyptologists all over the world.

During the lifetime of the project, a full week of scanning was spent in the field between 6th and 12th of March 2016. This paper will discuss a by-product of the scanning that was for a long time been ignored and treated as an act of vandalism by modern dwellers of the area. However, the archaeologist Percy Newberry, first reported this act of vandalism, as will be discussed, during the first season of his archaeological excavation in 1890-91. By analysing the different graffiti, a typology of different boats will be discussed, and the issue of pre-modern graffiti in Egypt at large will be further studied.


Christian Dalton

Filling in the Gaps: Researching the Historic Ship Graffiti of the Maltese Islands

As a crossroads for Mediterranean trade and piracy for much of the early Modern period, the Maltese islands have been exposed to many centuries of maritime activity. This long-established experience is reflected in the archaeological sites, cultural belief systems and traditions of the islands. One of the largest sources of this maritime history is the prolific carving of ships and boats into the exteriors of churches, military fortifications and private buildings; of which there are thousands of examples. These graffiti represent a broad spectrum of technical ability, nautical awareness, dimension, religious belief, and international trade routes. The study of ship graffiti therefore combines many fields of study including maritime history, art history, geology, geography and historical research. Their research allows us an insight into the daily lives of mariners, soldiers and ordinary folk.

The abundance of ship graffiti in Malta therefore necessitated the creation of a focussed research project. This formed the basis of the Maltese Ship Graffiti Project (MSGP); an initiative to record ship graffiti sites and to support a Citizen Science approach, whereby the public can submit their own discoveries. A handful of individuals have researched Maltese ship graffiti before, some in depth, however they have since moved on and many more sites have been uncovered. Furthermore, the development of new technologies and recording methods allow the project more of an insight into past Maltese culture, and, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.


Jamie Ingram

Graffiti Making and the Liminal Entrance: St Cross Hospital and Southampton Bargate

The notion of the church entrance as a liminal space has been considered and discarded in the past (Postles, 2007: 750). The reasoning given is that it is too chaotic, noisy and messy a space for the liminal to function. I contest however that the liminal is hidden in plain sight.

The liminal entrance is a noisy messy space between the ontological worlds of the secular and the divine and can be seen in the presence of the historical graffiti depositions within the entrance and surrounding area. I will contrast this with the similarly noisy messy space of the medieval city gate, a place of commerce, secular engagement and the practice of arrival and departure.

By contrasting the graffiti of these two locations I will show that the church porch operates in a different ontological space to the city gate and that the liminal can be identified through the graffiti practice expressed. The liminal space of the church entrance marked by the graffiti and the resultant empowerment of the space by the graffiti making and sustaining the new liminal place, distinct from the church within and the secular world without.


Cheryl Hart

<Title Pending>

My doctoral research (2011-2017) investigated the prolific use of the iconographic rosette motif (commonly known in medieval graffiti studies as ‘daisy wheel’) in the ancient world. Post-doctoral research examines the use of the motif in the common era, focussing in particular on graffiti in significant architectural elements, especially those associated with liminality.

Utilising semiotic theory, I perceive the motif to act as a means of non-verbal communication. The role of art as a visual code of communication has long been examined with symbols/motifs found on material forms being vehicles for the non-verbal communication of complex ideas to others.

Architecture, being highly visible, serves as a medium of ideological expression; such structures comprising powerful symbols, often acting as metaphors for a community’s view of the world order. Many scholars believe that the rosette/daisy wheel symbolises protection; however, my research clearly indicates that its role is much more complex. In this paper, I will discuss the incorporation of the rosette/daisy wheel – as a symbolic element – into architectural boundaries which are near-universal expressions of social transformation, and liminality. I will argue that the motif acts as a means of enhancing the symbolic value of the liminal zones created by these architectural features.


Coffee Break

Fourth Session 16:00


Kate & Mel Giles

The farm graffiti of the Yorkshire Horselads: lost communities and disappearing buildings

Hidden away in the granaries and stables of farm buildings high on the Yorkshire Wolds is the graffiti of a lost community – the horselads of East Yorkshire. These men were employed in a farming system almost unique to the chalk landscapes and poor soils of the Yorkshire Wolds.  In 2007, archaeologists Kate and Mel Giles undertook a programme of recording the buildings and graffiti of the Birdsall Estate. Our research showed how graffiti recorded many undocumented aspects of 19th and 20th century working lives, and raised questions about its survival in other agricultural and industrial communities and contexts. 

In this paper, will revisit these sites and stories, ten years on. The surviving horse lads and Wolds Rangers have long disappeared, but so too have many of the farmers who knew these individuals and remembered this way of life. Moreover, much of the graffiti we recorded has also been lost, as industrial-scale mechanisation rendered small-scale vernacular farm buildings and workers redundant. Our paper will reflect on the significance of graffiti in the light of recent writing on ‘building biographies’ and the ‘death’ of buildings. What role should archaeologists play in the recording, analysis and advocacy for these disappearing structures and stories?  


Matt Beresford

Protective graffiti at William Cavendish’s 17th century Riding School, Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire

The prevalence of protective symbols, such as the so-called witch marks, hexfoils, pentangles, compass circles, taper marks, and mesh designs, recorded across the national county surveys shows just how fearful of evil spirits past populations were.

The abundance, quality and variety of protection marks in the Riding School building at Bolsover Castle, however, is astounding, especially when considering that every piece of protective graffiti is located on or around a door or window in what seems to be a case of ‘spiritually barricading’ the building from evil spirits. The dispersal also seems to show purposeful and deliberate planning and is one of the few occasions where we can accurately date examples of historic graffiti as we know the Riding School was built in the early 1630s.

This paper explores the types and locations of protective graffiti at Bolsover, and offers up theories that William Cavendish appears to have been hugely concerned with protecting his beloved horses from malignant spirits on a level not seen at any other site across the two counties so far. 


James Wright

Tower of Strength: Buildings archaeology, ritual protection graffiti and the use of apotropaic motifs in elite architecture

This paper will attempt to broaden the discussion on ritual protection graffiti in mediaeval buildings by considering the use of apotropaic motifs in elite secular and sacred architecture. The use of graffiti pentagrams, compass-drawn circles, M and double-V symbols have been widely debated in recent years but, with firm corroborative documentary evidence still absent from the record, the discipline of buildings archaeology may be able to add new perspectives to this discourse. Using examples of ritual protection motifs from current research on high status buildings including St Mary & All Saints Hawksworth (Nottinghamshire), Marktkirche Hanover (Lower Saxony) and Tattershall Castle (Lincolnshire), a multidisciplinary approach will be used to try and demonstrate that informal apotropaic graffiti was part of a much wider architectural tradition – one that was rooted in the heart of all levels of mediaeval society from tenant farmers to artisans to the aristocracy.


Nathalie Cohen

Scratches and storytelling: graffiti recording and interpretation at National Trust sites.

Keynote Speaker


Close 17:40




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