Finding graffiti on the walls of an historic building would fill most people with disgust and horror.

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But for archaeologist Matt Champion, who is leading a survey at St Benet’s Abbey, near Horning, the sight of love hearts, initials and dates appearing under his torchlight is enough to set his heart racing.

He does not see the inscriptions in the Lincolnshire sandstone as the random doodles of vandals through the ages but as a fascinating insight into the past.

Volunteers have joined him on the iconic site to painstakingly search the medieval ruins for more graffiti and to record it photographically.

Their work is part of an £800,000 scheme, led by site owner Norfolk Archaeological Trust, to restore the abbey gatehouse and adjoining 18th century windmill, provide improved access, and to engage the public through community-led history projects and wildlife surveys.

Mr Champion, who is project director of an academically acclaimed Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey, said: “Most of the graffiti at St Benet’s dates from the 18th, 19th and 20th century, but it is still important. A lot of people have studied the abbey through the medieval period and the dissolution. This tells the story of the beginning of St Benet’s as a tourist attraction.”

He said a lot of early tourists, some arriving by wherries, used to immortalise their visit by carving their name or initials and a date. “There are also more elaborate inscriptions, including images of wherries and animals,” he said.

“Some of them are cut quite deeply into the hard stone and would have taken a long time to do.”

High on the wall of the gatehouse, the volunteers have discovered a daisy wheel image - a symbol designed to ward off evil found at many sites - which is thought to date to the 15th or 16th century.

Mr Champion said they would be comparing graffiti found at St Benet’s to that discovered in nearby churches to see if patterns emerged.

He said a lot of graffiti would not have been noticed before as it only became clearly visible under torchlight.

“This is a new field of study and very exciting,” he said.

For further volunteering opportunities at the site, visit the Norfolk Archaeological Trust website www.norfarchtrust.org.uk

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