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Winchelsea Historic Graffiti Survey

Who we are

WHGS is a project launched by the Winchelsea Archaeological Society (WAS) in June 2012 to discover and record as much as possible of the historic graffiti to be found in Winchelsea. The project will gradually be extended to neighbouring towns and villages. We hope to encourage others to survey their own historic buildings and, in due course, to catalyse the formation of Sussex and Kent graffiti surveys along the lines of the projects in Norfolk and other counties.
WHGS welcomes all volunteers, including members of other archaeological societies and individuals who are not members of any society. We will provide training and equipment.

What is historic graffiti?

To most people, the word ‘graffiti’ means the anti-social disfigurement of public spaces by idle or malicious individuals or gangs armed with spray cans. But before spray cans and since Antiquity, images and pieces of text were scratched or cut into the stone or plaster surfaces of buildings, and onto wooden features such as beams and lintels. Most ancient buildings are covered in graffiti, although most is now so faint that it is hard to see and therefore tends not to be noticed.
There is growing archaeological interest in this form of vernacular iconography. Many archaeologists and historians believe that graffiti may have played a very different role in the past than it does today. In societies where writing materials were expensive and many people were illiterate, graffiti seems to have been an accepted means by which to make important public statements, mark events, provide reminders, invoke supernatural help and ward off malevolent forces. If this is true, then the study of graffiti can provide a unique insight into popular culture, provided that we can decode it.
A disproportionate quantity of historic graffiti survives in churches, but this probably just reflects the fact that these tended to be masonry buildings, at a time when most houses were timber-framed, and have survived longer than most domestic buildings. Graffiti was probably much more common in houses than we imagine.

Blackfriars Barn

Interest in local historic graffiti has been spurred by the discovery of a veritable fleet of ship graffiti in one of the cellars under Blackfriars Barn. This is the ruin at the edge of the Cricket Field, alongside Rectory Lane (A259). The graffiti in Blackfriars Barn has been recorded by archaeologist, Matt Champion, who has pioneered the study of church graffiti in Norfolk, assisted by members of the Winchelsea Archaeological Society (WAS). The sheer number of ship images is unusual, as is the fact that they are on plaster and are so large, and are found in a secular building. The ships themselves appear to be medieval. If this confirmed, the graffiti will be of national importance. Ship graffiti in Blackfriars Barn, Winchelsea

St Thomas's Church

This is the starting point for WHGS. Matt Champion provided training for volunteers on 9 June 2012. The first survey took place on 15 June. The schedule for further work on St Thomas's and other building is listed on the right.

Church of All Saints and St Nicholas, Icklesham

The surfaces of the pillars and other stonework have been badly by the chipping off with a chisel of whitewash and paint, probably during "restoration" in 1850. A few graffiti remain visible, mainly on the pillars of the northern side of the nave. This is the side on which the door used to be, before it was moved to the western side.

graffiti in Icklesham Church

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Survey schedule

  • Friday 20 July 2012. 10:00am. St Thomas's Church, Winchelsea.

Some graffiti

Ship graffiti from Blackfriars Barn

Ship graffito from Blackfriars Barn

A possible merchant's mark from St Thomas's Church

A possible merchant's mark

A ship graffito from St Thomas's Church

A ship graffito from St Thomas's Church (traced by Jacki Morris)

A second ship graffiti from St Thomas's Church

Another ship and other image(s) from St Thomas's