Graffiti From Ancient to Modern Times: Memorialization, Human Expression and the Art That Will Not Die

Image courtesy of April Holloway.

Credit: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project

Graffiti has been around since time immemorial.  From ancient caves to carved mountainsides to splendiferous murals, pictures have been splashed and carved on walls and surfaces throughout time and across cultures.  Self-expression, political agitation, vendettas, advertisements—all reasons for some to bring out the paint and depict what moves them most.  There is something inherently primal in the need to memorialize one’s self and time.  Indeed, graffiti’s immediacy and rawness of expression can astonish, whether found deep in the caves of Lascaux or in the modern day artistic gyrations of the anonymous British artist Banksy.

AntiquityNOW brings you a blog post by our partner Ancient Origins that describes a BBC report on how medieval graffiti in English churches are now being catalogued as part of a unique new project.  These renderings are providing an intimate look at people’s lives hundreds of years ago and raising provocative questions about what we thought we knew.    At the end of the post, look at the accompanying curriculum and activities on the history of graffiti from ancient to modern times. And for more on this art form, read AntiquityNOW’s previous blog, Ancient Graffiti:  From Pompeii to Smyrna.

Researchers Explore Mysteries of Medieval Graffiti in England

A new project has been set up in England to record the plethora of medieval graffiti found in churches throughout the country, according to a news report in the BBC.  The strange etchings, which include pentagrams, crosses, geometric designs, ships, and what archaeologists call ‘demon traps’, provide fascinating insights into life in the Middle Ages.

The new initiative, known as the Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project, started in Norfolk in 2010 led by archaeologist Matt Champion, but has now been expanded to include Suffolk, Kent, East Sussex, Surrey, and Lincolnshire. To date, volunteer researchers have recorded more than 28,000 images in Norfolk alone.

Champion explained that there are a variety of different theories regarding the symbology of the graffiti and care is needed when interpreting the drawings.

Many of the discoveries have already been the subject of intense debate. For example, researchers discovered the figure of a ‘straw man’ on the walls of the Cranwell Parish Church in Lincolnshire. Brian Porter, Lincolnshire’s medieval graffiti project co-ordinator, believes the figure relates to the pre-Christian tradition of burning a straw man made out of the previous year’s crop and scattering its ashes across the fields. The figure subsequently became a pagan fertility symbol and Mr Porter suggests the Church may have had difficulty stamping out old pagan traditions.  However, Mr Champion doubts that the ‘straw man’ is a genuine pagan symbol. “Not all [Christians] were closet pagans,” he said. Some medieval graffiti could simply be the result of bored church-goers.

Many images and symbols crop up regularly in the Medieval graffiti. For example, sundials are common and almost always appeared on the south wall of a church where the sun passes during the day.  ‘Mass dials’ were also used to tell worshippers when the next service would be held.

Sundial etched onto a church wall. Credit: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project

Featured Image: Sundial etched onto a church wall. Credit: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project

Compass-drawn designs are among the most common types of inscriptions recorded in medieval parish churches (see feature image).  Mr Champion maintains that the compass designs involving a series of circles may have functioned as ritual protection markings designed to ward of the ‘evil eye’, or acted as ‘demon traps’.

It was believed that the demons that roamed through the earth were rather stupid,” said Mr Champion. “They were attracted to bright shiny things and, should they come across a line, then their stupidity and curiosity would cause them to follow that line to its conclusion.

However, Mr Champion does not dismiss the possibility that many of the images amounted to simple doodling and were not necessarily symbolic of anything. Nevertheless, many of the images shed light on the thoughts, beliefs, and lives of people in the Middle Ages.

“It tells you what was going on in people’s minds, churches were not always quiet spiritual places,” said Mr Champion. “We want to record it before it’s lost.”

Featured image: Circles are also very common and in many cases were made to ward off evil. Credit: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project

By April Holloway

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Lesson Plan Time Travel copy


  • To introduce students to the different ways that people communicated through the ages
  • To introduce students to the concept of self-expression as a human trait through the ages
  • To explore the tension between the idea of self-expression and societal norms
  • To help students develop research skills
  • To promote language arts in expressing controversial topics
  • To analyze cross-cultural (and sub-cultural) expression of concepts and ways of thinking

Student Outcomes

  • To think critically about self-expression and societal representations and to understand why they have been part of the human experience for thousands of years
  • To appreciate how people and societies memorialize their times
  • To evaluate and think critically about consequential events when one’s concept of art is interpreted as antisocial or politically challenging
  • To experiment in using art as storytelling to offer a unique perspective of one’s place in time

Project #1

Project #2

  • Concept- What are modern day examples of graffiti?  What messages are being depicted? Why is there controversy about graffiti?
  • MaterialsNewspapers, magazines and online resources; discover why some people think graffiti is a form of self-expression that should be allowed, and why others think it is destruction of property.
  • Activity- Divide into groups and discuss graffiti as:
    • An expressive form that should be allowed for public viewing
    • A public nuisance that destroys buildings and causes neighborhoods to deteriorate, especially when graffiti is used by gangs
    • A form of expression that will not go away, so there must be ways to allow it (list some ideas for compromise)

Project #3

  • Concept- Think about what it would be like to have your life written out in pictures.
  • Materials- Family pictures and your imagination
  • Activity- Create a pictorial representation of your life—your ideas, the people in your life, what you like to do, your hopes and dreams, etc.

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Halawet El-Riz: A Ramadan Dessert for the Ages

ramadan Halawet Al RizRamadan is coming to a close and we thought we’d share a wonderful dessert recipe that is a favorite.  It is a perfect way to end an iftar or evening meal that breaks the fast that the faithful observe each day during the Islamic holy month. The recipe below for Halawet El-Riz conjures up a rice, cheese and cream dish that is interesting not only in its delectable fusion of ingredients, but as is so with many recipes, because it is the culinary result of human endeavor through the centuries.

The Egyptian rice called for in the recipe has a fascinating derivation. Today rice seems ubiquitous and is used in many cuisines.  However, no one is really sure of its origins. There are claims its cultivation began in Java and Cambodia.  What is known from archaeological evidence is that rice was being grown and consumed in China more than 7,000 years ago. Evidence of rice was also found in India around 1,000 BCE. Ancient Egypt was considered the most important spice trading port of the Eastern Mediterranean (circa 80 BCE), and Alexandria was central to that activity, even having one of its entrances called the “Pepper Gate.”[1] Here Arabs, Syrians, Nubians, Ethiopians, Armenians and Georgians came together to trade.  They were known to cultivate rice as a food source.  India also traded with Egypt for spices[2], which incidentally was what rice was called at the time.  In fact, prior to this, rice was unknown to Egyptians and Hebrews, and the Romans even looked disfavorably upon it.  We can assume that rice entered Egyptian medicinal and culinary arts through these trade practices.  From here, rice was on the move. Although many cultures used it only for medicinal purposes, by the late medieval age it was also an ingredient in sweets in France and Italy, perhaps arriving there by way of the Crusaders who brought it back from the Holy Land.  Venetian merchants, Arabs in Sicily and Aragonese in Naples may also be credited with the expansion of rice consumption during this period. What is interesting in this history of rice is how chance—or mischance—was transformative.  The 14th century saw a series of events in Europe, including wars, grain and other food shortages, and most catastrophically, the Black Death.  The plague swept across the continent, leaving destroyed communities in its wake.  With dwindling food supplies and labor shortages, Italy decided it needed a hearty and sustainable crop to resurrect the agricultural industry and the dwindling population.  Learning from the Chinese and other cultures, Italy realized that rice was the perfect crop and began to change the fortunes of the land and its people with its cultivation.  Rice was so successful as a crop that it was dubbed the “Renaissance vegetable.”[3] From here rice became a common staple in western culture.

Cheese is one of the oldest foods on earth, appearing before recorded history. Another ingredient in today’s recipe is akkawi or akawi cheese, a Middle Eastern cheese from Aka, the region where the cheese originated.  This creamy cheese made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk is named after the city of Acre in North Israel, which in Arabic translates to Akka.  The cheese called for in the recipe is Czech akawi, a popular and widely exported product made in the Czech Republic.  Akawi is one of the many cheeses produced in this region.  As with rice, it is a mysterious and divergent path that akawi cheese took to become so adaptable to different cultures.

Finally, rose water is a lovely ingredient, fragrant to smell and delicate to the taste. The rose predates human existence, going back 25 to 40 million years ago. The Babylonians cultivated roses as shown in cuneiform tablets and a rose is prominent in an Egyptian hieroglyphic from 1400 BCE.  We also know that Cleopatra sprinkled rose petals in her bath. The Chinese, Greeks and Romans cultivated varieties of the flower and lavished their gardens with its fragrant blossoms. The Turkic people in the 11th century produced rose water for feasts and celebrations. And to Muslims, the rose is a symbol of Divine Beauty and of the Prophet Muhammad as seen in the expression “To smell a rose is a God-rewarded deed.”[4] From these early civilizations rose water evolved to become in modern times widely used for food, medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

Why have we described the histories of these ingredients that together create this delicious dessert?  Because this recipe is one small story that reflects the best of human endeavor—how through the ages, over continents and seas, people shared their knowledge and ingenuity to create something that embodies the sweetness of life.  It is worth considering this grand achievement during this holy time.

Halawet El-Riz

*Recipe courtesy of Nestle Family.

Serves 18


  • 400 grams of akawi cheese, Czech
  • 1¼ cups of egyptian rice or 250 grams
  • 3 cups of water
  • 1 cup of sugar or 200 grams
  • ½ cup of rose water

For the cream:


  1. Slice the cheese and soak it in water at room temperature for 3 hours to remove the salt. Change the water every 10-15 minutes.
  2. Boil the rice with the 3 cups of water until it is completely cooked. Add the sugar and rose water and blend using electrical blender.
  3. Put the cheese in a bowl and melt it on double boil (bain-marie). Boil the rice mixture again and add the melted cheese to it while on fire, mixing constantly until well combined.
  4. To prepare the cream, mix all the cream ingredients and bring to boil on low heat, and then simmer for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Keep aside to cool down.
  5. Put the cheese mixture in individual cups or a large plate. Serve cold with the cream on top.






Mulan: The Journey From Ancient Tale to Disney Blockbuster

MulanIn our blog series on the historic origins of Disney films, we’ve found that being literary archaeologists pays off. Digging into these films reveals layer upon layer of historic events and tales from all over the globe, each serving as inspiration for the next generation of storytellers, and culminating in the present-day retellings that we now experience at the movies. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Celebrate Germany’s World Cup Win with Ancient Sauerkraut

Kiszona_kapustaIn honor of Germany’s World Cup win last Sunday, we’re featuring a truly German food:  sauerkraut! The recipe this week is Never Enough Pork Beer-Braised Sauerkraut and it is perfect for a hearty, German feast. You might be surprised to find however, that sauerkraut did not originate in Germany or anywhere in Europe. Its roots grow out of the East. Continue reading

Exploring LegacyQuest 2014! Building a 21st Century Soccer Stadium Using Tips From 1st Century Rome

LegacyQuest large logo blue borderThis week’s featured video is from The Baldwin School in Pennsylvania and received an Honorable Mention. Viewers are taken to a modern construction site where the architectural features of the past are shown to inspire the present. The ingenious film was created by middle school students Margaret, Emma (Karly), Charisma and Paige with the help and inspiration of their teacher, Preston Bannard. Continue reading

One Museum’s Quest to Preserve Niger’s Precious Cultural Heritage

Boubou Hama National Museum

Boubou Hama National Museum

Niger does not get a lot of press when it comes to the protection of its cultural heritage. Often it is overshadowed by news about antiquities from its neighbor to the south, Nigeria, and the restitution of the Benin Bronzes taken from that region. However, the people of Niger are proud of their heritage and want to protect and preserve it. One man in particular, Maki Garba from the Boubou Hama National Museum, contacted AntiquityNOW, eager to share the work that’s being done at the museum to ensure that Niger’s past is not lost. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Bacon Pemmican: A Modern Twist on Ancient Native American Jerky

Preparing pemmican.

Preparing pemmican.

Summer road trips are a family tradition this time of year.  But along with the fun comes mile after mile and hour after hour in close quarters. Even experienced travelers can become quite frazzled. That’s why it’s important to pack lots of food and snacks to keep everyone happy. One of the best traveling foods is jerky.  Yes, you heard that right. Full of flavor and nutrition, jerky is easy to pack and won’t spoil in those hot summer temperatures. This year, why not make your own delicious jerky as the Native Americans have done for thousands of years. Pemmican, a dried meat recipe that also sustained the Canadian fur traders in North America, is all natural and has ancient roots, but this recipe gives it a whole new twist by using bacon instead of beef or buffalo. Continue reading

Exploring LegacyQuest 2014! Time Travel: Greek and Roman Architecture

LegacyQuest large logo blue borderThis week we’re featuring another video from a group of students who received an Honorable Mention for their excellent filmmaking efforts. This entry from The Baldwin School in Pennsylvania takes us back in time to Ancient Greece and then fast forwards to Ancient Rome before returning us to the present day, comparing and contrasting architecture throughout the journey. It was created by middle school students Armina, Gloria, Jordyn and Vivienne (Vivi) with the help of their teacher, Jeannette Keshishian. Continue reading