BAS Visit to St Andrew’s Church, Sonning

Due to demand, there were two group visits to St Andrew’s Church, Sonning, for familiarisation with its external mediaeval graffiti both led by James Peddle.  The first took place on Friday 1st July with 7, and the second on Tuesday 5th July with 6 BAS members. 

The visit started with a short introduction to the topic, then a look at various markings on one of the church walls.  In mediaeval times there were no clocks, so time was not structured then as it is now.  Consequently, people would go by the general position of the Sun and may have had access to a sundial.  We found ‘scratch dials’ (crude sundials) on the church -these would have been little practical use.  They are likely representative of a more symbolic relationship between an individual commitment to pray to God.

Memorials in the form of a headstone in the churchyard or on the church wall were too expensive for most people.  So, some have been engraved onto the outside walls.  They usually use a ‘house’ shape enclosing the person’s initials and date of death, e.g., RE 1701 was found.  

an example of a ‘Memorial”

In a mediaeval context,  daisy wheels, also known as ‘hexfoils’ or ‘compass drawn petals’, were apotropaic, i.e., to ward off evil.  They were believed to work by the evil spirits getting ‘trapped’ in the design with no way out.  They were mainly drawn with a two-pronged tool like a compass.  But as compasses were specialist  items for mediaeval people,  these were likely drawn with commonly available scissors or shears.  They are often found by doors and windows where evil may enter, or around spiritually significant areas (font, altars, devotional paintings…).  

an example of a “Daisy Wheel”

VV, W & M symbols are thought to be associated with an appeal to the Virgin Mary for positive outcomes. The VV standing for Virgo Virginum, Virgin of Virgins, and when VV or W are turned upside down then they are an M – an incorruptible symbol.

an example of an “M”

Small holes in the stones could be where people have scratched for grains of the church as a holy potion to recover their health.

an example of a finger indentation

At this point we split into two groups, one led by James, the other by Keith Abbott, to look for examples of the above and other graffiti on other areas of the walls.  

The groups swapped over after which as a full group we looked at some other significant stones and stone markings.  Masons marks are typically in the centre of a stone, whereas guild marks tend to cross stones possibly indicating, ‘We paid for this’.  Lead roofs sometimes have outlines of the hands and feet of workers.  Glaziers sometimes put their name and date on their glass.  The same is true of woodwork.  There is some graffiti inside the church, but most has been covered in heavy lime whitewash.

As there is currently no record of any of this graffiti, we looked at how might we record it formally.  James demonstrated the use of a tripod and a mobile phone camera set to take images in raw file format.  The advantage of most mobile phones cameras is the single lens which needs to be situated about 0.5 m from the carving.  An archaeological scale also needs to be used to determine the size of the markings.  Then, holding a torch at different raking angles, take photos recording the shadows cast by the graffiti and later integrate them using a graphics package.  Record the site of graffiti seen on a plan of the church and on a record sheet.  Church histories can be found in the ‘Victoria County Histories’.  Both visits concluded with a chat over a drink in the nearby Bull Inn.

It is hoped that these two experience/discoveries of graffiti sessions at St Andrew’s, Sonning, will have served as the forerunner to a future BAS project.  If you are interested in being involved in this or in seeing some mediaeval church graffiti, please contact James Peddle, peddle(at)hotmail.co.uk .

report by Julie Worsfold and James Peddle, photos by Keith Abbott and Julie Worsfold

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire