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

– See more at:!bjZaVD

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

  • Concept– Research how ancient to modern cultures have used wall markings and paintings to depict their worlds.
  • Materials– Historical journals, textbooks, art books; see AntiquityNOW’s blog Ancient Graffiti: From Pompeii to SmyrnaFor some examples of modern day graffiti, go to
  • Activity– Create a timeline with examples of how five (5) different cultures through time used graffiti:
    • Can you see common messages?
    • Which messages interest you the most? Why?

Project #2

  • Concept– What are modern day examples of graffiti?  What messages are being depicted? Why is there controversy about graffiti?
  • Materials– Newspapers, 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.

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

  1. Matt Champion

    Love that you covered this story, and like the activities. However, can you please change the caption on the first image to read – copyright Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Survey rather than April Holloway. Many thanks. Keep up the great work!

  2. Pingback: From Ancient Graffiti to Modern Street Art: Our Need for Self Expression Through Time | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: Strata: Portraits of Humanity, Episode 5, “Archaeology in 12 Minutes” and “Photographing the Invisible” | AntiquityNOW

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