These days, graffiti on any public building would be condemned as mindless vandalism – especially in a holy place of worship.

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But centuries ago, the secretive scrawlings on the stone walls and pillars of Norwich Cathedral were an outlet for the congregation to express their faith, their prayers... and even some sinister superstitions.

Now these messages from history are being brought back to life through an archaeology project which aims to shine new light on the meanings and motivation behind Norfolk’s medieval graffiti.

Volunteers from the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey (NMGS) began a survey of the Norman cathedral at the beginning of February, which has already recorded hundreds of early inscriptions.

The initial results have staggered archaeologists, both in their quantity and quality.

“The walls are covered in everything you can think of,” said project director Matthew Champion. “Medieval ships, names, animals, windmills, figures and prayers. Just about everything that would have been important to the citizens of Norwich during the middle ages.

“I think we have to understand that our modern view of the cathedral is very different from the way in which it was viewed by the local people during the middle ages, particularly the ways in which it was used. They saw nothing wrong with carving their prayers into the very stones of the building.”

Deputy project director Colin Howey said: “We knew there was graffiti here but we had no idea just how much there would be. However, the real thrill comes from discovering a previously unknown medieval inscription. In many cases we are probably the first people to have seen them for many hundreds of years.

“Obviously we have got enormous academic and archaeological interest in this, but what is so exciting about it is that it connects you in a real an physical way to the past.

“These are whispers in stone and you are standing in the place where hundreds of years ago, someone would have been scratching away.

“It could be a devout symbol of faith, or someone creating a slander, or a musician noting down a new composition. There are a whole range of motivations and exactly what they could have been, who knows? But it is tantalising.”

Among the most intriguing discoveries made by the survey are a number of inscriptions, beautifully-carved in medieval text – but upside-down. One of the most pronounced is the name Kaynfford, in the cathedral’s ambulatory.

Although their exact meaning is still a mystery it has been suggested that these inscriptions were intended to act as curses.

Mr Howey said: “We know that from ancient times through to the medieval, inverting things was to wish bad upon them. That is the realm we are in at the moment – folk magic. It could be a curse, particularly when it is linked to a man’s name. We think that when you have got devotional symbols they were probably sanctioned by the church authorities, but we presume this sort of thing (inverted writing) would not have been welcomed. It is exactly the kind of folk magic that the church frowned upon in the extreme.”

In the cathedral’s nave, a clear outline of a ship had been recorded earlier – possibly a prayer left for a fisherman or mariner. But until Saturday’s survey, no-one had spotted that the ship was being pursued by an enormous open-mouthed whale, which Mr Howey said was most likely to have been added later.

“I have been looking at this wall for ten years and never noticed myself,” he said. “I was thinking to myself: ‘How did I miss it?’ but for the person who finds something like that, it is euphoric to notice something that has been hidden away for hundreds of years. We think it could have been a prayer made by someone related to a sailor, and the whale is most likely Jonah’s whale.”

On another pillar are two four-line musical staves, overlaid with a series of notes, which are thought to have been inscribed in the second half of the 16th century, after which it would have been replaced by the five-line musical notation used today.

“We are talking to the cathedral organist and he is having a look to see if he could play it,” said Mr Howey. “Here we have a piece of music from 400 years ago being lifted off the walls – indeed it could have been the organist at the time who scratched this composition onto a wall in order to play it later.”

Many of the inscriptions found by the survey have been interpreted as ritual protection marks or prayers, and the fact that they have been deeply etched into the stonework suggests to scholars that they were perhaps created with the blessing of the cathedral authorities.

They include a series of “daisy wheels” – petal-shaped designs, possibly dating back to the 15th century.

Mr Howey said: “We found a lot more than we thought we would, and it has brought a lot of discussion about what they might mean.

“We are beginning to think they are apotropaic marks to ward off bad spirits. It is also possible they are prayers, or devotional gestures made in stone. We think that ordinary people were making devotional marks like this with the permission of the authorities – which makes the word graffiti seem like a misnomer.”

There are also examples of geometric lines, angles and circles believed to have been left by a mason, possibly practising his calculations for stonework in the building.

“These are quite unusual because we usually find them hidden away,” said Mr Howey. “Masons were normally very secretive of their skills, so would keep this knowledge away from people. So to find it at this height (eye level) was amazing.”

Among the most significant discoveries made on Saturday was a medieval graffito of a saint, potentially the first one to be discovered in England.

“Everything about it to me looks medieval, and I think it could have been drawn by someone to associate their soul with the church,” said Mr Howey.

“Purgatory was a painful waiting room for the medieval church-goer, so perhaps this was a way to gain spiritual power to speed their route to heaven. It could also be post-Reformation – in which case, maybe it is an act of defiance by a rebellious Catholic.”

The survey will continue throughout the spring and early summer. The project, undertaken by volunteer teams, is working closely with the Dean and Chapter and cathedral archaeologist Roland Harris.

Further details, and how to volunteer, can be found at www.medieval-graffiti.co.uk.

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