Ampulla and Graffiti

In a previous piece on this blog, I noted similarities between the so-called “witch-marks” and other apotropaic signs found as graffiti in churches and old buildings, and symbols found on lead tokens recorded on the PAS database. In the course of my lugubrious browsing of the database during the current lockdown (I unfortunately find myself in the high risk group) I noticed the same symbols, or some of them at least, on other artefacts; in particular on medieval ampullae.

Usually dated to the 13th-15th centuries, an ampulla is a small flask, most of them made from lead alloy, designed to contain a small amount of Holy water, oil or similar thaumaturgic fluid. They are well represented on the database with over 2000 records showing up from a simple search. They are close cousins of the pilgrim badge and in many ways served a similar function as a physical, visible symbol of a pilgrimage. Like badges, they could be worn – either suspended on a cord or chain, or sewn onto clothing or hats. In Piers Ploughman, Langland describes a pilgrim:

“And hundreds of ampulles

On his hat seten

signes of synay

and shells of Galice”

Whilst it has been suggested that poets such as Langland and Chaucer were to some extent parodying the pilgrim attire (hundreds of ampulles on a hat does seem excessive!) there is no doubt that people did bedeck themselves with these items, and it is tempting to think of ampullae and badges as being souvenirs – the medieval equivalent of the trinkets we buy today to demonstrate we have visited a place; something akin to an “I heart Canterbury” t-shirt. And to an extent they did fulfill that function, but there was a lot more to it. People undertook pilgrimages for different reasons. Apart from the obvious religious motivations, there were social and secular aspects; some pilgrimages were actually assigned as a penance. So we may assume people viewed badges and ampullae with similar duality; they could be simultaneously objects of personal devotion and reverance, and charismatic objects conveying status and kudos on the owner and wearer.

Two ampullae I record, DENO-BD4CBD and DENO-2E23D6 were decorated with the multi-petalled “daisy wheel” design so frequently found amongst church graffiti and on lead tokens.

Two medieval ampullae recorded in Derbyshire. Left: DENO-BD4CBD (Copyright: Derby Museums Trust, License: CC-BY). Right: DENO-2E23D6 (Copyright: Simon Nicholson).

A quick search found other examples, such as YORYM-973896, which also has on the other face, the “VV” symbol (the “Marion mark”), another symbol very common in church graffiti and also found on tokens. On ampullae is it suggested the symbol refers to Our Lady of Walsingham, a popular shrine.

A medieval ampulla found in Yorkshire with “daisy wheel” on one side and “VV” mark on the other. Record ID is YORYM-973896 (Copyright: York Museums Trust, License: CC-BY).

The reverse of “my” two ampullae show cross-hatched heart symbols, which are also found as graffiti, although not so commonly as the daisy wheel of VV. There would seem to be a connection between the decoration of some ampulla and common church graffiti. The exact nature of that connection is hard to pin down. Given the apotropaic function attributed to these symbols when found on buildings, it is tempting to assume the same magical/spiritual protection was being invoked by placing them on ampullae, giving the ampulla the function of amulet as well as any devotional and charismatic utility. But there is also a “chicken and egg” aspect to this question – are the ampullae decorations inspired by familiar graffiti or vice versa? In his book on medieval graffiti, Mathew Champion speculates that some graffiti were carved into the fabric of the church to solemnise a vow or to commemorate the completion of a vow or undertaking. He particularly cites the preponderance of crosses of various forms, but if I could indulge in a little speculation of my own, might it not be possible that a returning pilgrim may carve a symbol copied from the ampulla they have carried with them from the shrine they visited?

Taking my flight of fancy a little further, I note that there are other symbols and images found in church graffiti that, it could be argued, resemble those on ampullae. The Archiepiscopal mantle and mitre are quite common on ampullae associated with the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, and often the mantle is stylised as a cross-hatched triangle, which is a recognised graffito. Finally, scallop shells are found amongst graffiti and many ampullae are in the form of scallop shells – the “shells of Galice” mentioned by Langland. This symbol is strongly associated with the shrine of St. James of Compostela, but the scallop was also a generic symbol of pilgrimage.

I am aware of the strong possibility of barking up wrong trees here, but I find the similarities in these symbols tantalising and thought I would share my thoughts.


The vision of Piers Plowman, William Langland, London and New York: J.M. Dent and E.P. Dutton, 1978

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches, Mathew Champion, Ebury Press: 1st Edition, 2015

Medieval Pilgrim Badges: Souvenirs or Valuable Charismatic Objects?, Margrete Figenschou Simonsen, 

Token protection?

As some of you may know, for the past couple of years I have been engaged in a little project which has taken me around the churches of the Derbyshire Peak, the idea being to photograph in detail the alabaster tomb effigies that are unusually common in the region.

My notion was to create a visual record of the buckles and strap fittings depicted on the effigies, so as to help date comparable objects on the database – the effigies are usually dated and most would have been made either during the lifetime of the deceased or shortly after death, and several sources attest to their accuracy in depicting clothing and armour.

 This is still a work in progress, and one that I really must get organised properly and figure out a method of publication or distribution! However, what I want to talk about here is not the effigy project but something I became aware of during my photography trips, which may be of interest to some.

I noticed to my surprise, and initially to my tongue-tutting annoyance, that most of the effigies were covered with graffiti.

Image of a carved stone tomb effigy of a bishop. Close-up view of the head lying on pillow. The face has graffiti etched on it.
A graffiti-covered effigy. Copyright: Simon Nicholson.

On examination, it was clear that the majority was not recent, that the names, initials and symbols had been accumulating for centuries. I mentioned this in conversation to a curator at my local museum, who informed me that church graffiti, much of it medieval, was an interesting field of study in its own right and directed me to Matthew Champion’s excellent book on the subject.

In addition to centuries of variations on ‘Kilroy was here’ are older and more mysterious symbols. Crosses appear in abundance, some crude, some elaborate. Some were possibly carved to solemnise a vow or to mark the completion of an undertaking such as a pilgrimage; others may have had an apotropaic purpose, that is to ward off evil influences or bad luck.

There are shoes and ships, birds and beasts, shields and heraldic devices, houses and windmills. There are regular grids of lines which may have been for playing ‘merrils’, a form of nine men’s morris.

Two symbols in particular are so common as to be almost ubiquitous, and also hauntingly familiar to me, because I had seen them before – on the PAS database! The first is the “daisy wheel” or hexafoil, the geometric six petalled flower.

Hexafoil design carved into masonry. Copyright: Simon Nicholson.

This design was once thought to be a mason’s mark, because it was assumed you needed a mason’s pair of compasses to draw it. You may have learned to make the design at school using a pencil and compass!  But it is now realised that it is perfectly possible to construct the design using domestic scissors or shears, such as would have been readily available in medieval and post-medieval times.

This has led to speculation that the design was predominantly drawn by women. However I found a preponderance of daisy wheels and variants in a set of pews that I was told had been exclusively for male use. As for the significance of the design, there may be an association with the Virgin Mary or the cult of the Magdelene. This is suggested by the vesica shape of the petals. It is of course possible that too much is being read into this; the design may have been popular simply because it is so easy to construct. The consensus is that whatever its origins, the design became an apotropaic mark. The other very common symbol is the VV, two V shapes next to one another or slightly overlapping, to resemble a W.

Image of 16 graffiti marks carved into stone. Each is shaped as two letter V overlapping each other side by side to form a W shape. The marks are arranged in a four-by-four grid.
A selection of “Marian marks” – graffiti related to the Virgin Mary. Image: Suffolk Medieval Graffiti Survey,

This stands for Virgo Virginum (Virgin of Virgins) and is an invocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Inverted, the shape forms M for Maria, hence one name for these symbols, Marian marks. They are also known as witch marks and are often found in old buildings, not just churches, as a counter-witchcraft measure.

These two symbols struck me as familiar when I started to spot them amongst church graffiti because, as I said, I have seen them quite often on objects recorded on the database. Coin-sized disks of lead or lead alloy bearing a daisy wheel design are quite common finds; hundreds are recorded on our database. Some are recorded as weights or gaming pieces, but most are described as agricultural tokens or tallies. Although the daisy wheel is recognised in the Baylis classification of tokens (as type 16), and in the Powell 32 type system ( type 1) it is acknowledged (by Edward Fletcher and others) that the identification of these disks as agricultural tokens is uncertain, in contrast with other designs such as the cross and pellet types or others depicting windmills or bags of corn.  In his book, Fletcher actually poses the questions ‘who…will unearth the answer to those puzzling petal types?’ He goes on to ponder if they may be communion tokens, or guild membership tokens, but concludes that they remain enigmatic.

Image of the front and back of two lead alloy tokens arranged side by side.
Lead alloy tokens with the “daisy wheel” design on it. Left: DENO-2DEA34. Right: HESH-D24239. Copyright: Derby Museums Trust, and Birmingham Museums Trust, Licence: CC-BY.

I am now indulging in pure speculation, but I cannot help but wonder if there is a connection between these artefacts and the near identical marks found in graffiti? We know that many churches had the facility to cast lead and some produced their own communion tokens.

Could the tokens perhaps have had a secular purpose, but with their manufacturers inspired by a design familiar in the fabric of their local church? Perhaps the disks are not tokens in the usual sense but some kind of talismanic object, bearing a familiar apotropaic symbol. Likewise, it is assumed that the W mark appearing on similar leaden disks is an initial (Powell type 2), but the similarity to Marian marks is, to me, quite striking. Are these also apotropaic objects, invoking the protection and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Or is it the other way round, are the graffiti inspired by familiarity with the “tokens”?

Image of the front and back of a circular token with a W shaped mark on it.
A lead token with the “W” or overlapping “V” mark (KENT-01BEFB). Copyright: Kent County Council.

I think this is an interesting area of research. Perhaps someone out there can shed more light?

Books mentioned:-

Medieval Graffiti: The Lost Voices of England’s Churches 1st Edition by Matthew Champion (ISBN: 9780091960414)

Leaden Tallies and Tokens by E Fletcher (IBSN-10 1897738269)