In brief

UK's Medieval Graffiti Full of Subversive Pagan Symbols

The straw king, a medieval graffiti drawing that could be a pagan fertility symbol. Photo: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project.

The straw king, a medieval graffiti drawing that could be a pagan fertility symbol. Photo: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project.

Do England's medieval graffiti drawings reveal a lingering devotion to paganism? As reported by the BBC, the four-year-old Lincolnshire medieval graffiti project has uncovered more than 28,000 examples of centuries-old carvings etched by bored medieval church-goers, some of which appear to depict pagan symbols and imagery.

Since the project began in Norfolk, it has spread across England, with volunteers exploring the dark recesses of tiny medieval churches, photographing the surprising amount of graffiti, which was formerly thought to be rare. "Turns out it's not," said project founder Matt Champion, a medieval archaeologist, in an interview with the BBC.

"It's everywhere, it tells you what was going on in people's minds, churches were not always quiet spiritual places," Brian Porter, who is coordinating the project, told the BBC.

While it is difficult to accurately interpret the mysterious images, which include human figures, pentagrams, crosses, ships, and compasses, Porter is quick to assign deeper pagan meanings to some of the drawings. A man wearing a crown, for instance, could be the straw king, an ancient fertility symbol in which a straw man was made from the remnants of the previous year's crops and then burned, after which its the ashes were strewn over the freshly planted fields.

Porter suspects such graffiti is evidence of the secret, subversive adherence by the populace to old pagan traditions despite the church's efforts.

Champion is less convinced. "To be honest, I've yet to come across a genuine pagan symbol. Not all [medieval Christians] were closet pagans."

Drawings of ships, for instance, could be a prayer for the safe return of a loved one, or an expression of thanks for the successful completion of a voyage. A commonly encountered circular etching could have been made by a mason showing an apprentice how to use a compass, or a ritual protection mark to ward off the evil eye as a "demon trap."

"It was believed that the demons that roamed through the earth were rather stupid," said 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."

Studying medieval graffiti is a relatively new area of archaeology, and understanding of the images is likely to grow. "The more we look, the more we find," says Porter. "We want to record it before it's lost."