THIS week, I was fortunate enough to pop in to Salisbury Cathedral and catch up with Steve Dunn for a journey round Salisbury Cathedral with a difference. Steve is the man leading Salisbury Cathedral’s current survey of the graffiti found on site, a project due for completion in 2020 to mark the building’s 800th anniversary. He is also leading a series of tours on the topic in the coming months and gave me a sneak peek as to what is in store.

Like me, you might not have considered Salisbury Cathedral to have much in the way of graffiti. But as Steve explained, the writing is very much on the walls. The original derivation of the term graffiti means ‘scratchings’ and back in the medieval day, this was how ordinary churchgoers would leave their mark on the church. They couldn’t afford the splendour of paying for a tomb for posterity, but they could mark their own personal faith in other ways.

Under Steve’s expert guidance, what had previously seemed like blank stone walls suddenly came alive with meaning. On one column, there was a scratched drawing of a man with an injured foot – a prayer, perhaps, that God might heal it. On another were consecration crosses, signs to denoted the anointing of the building. Then there were the apotropaic markings – spiral swirls and circles designed to capture demons and evil spirits, sucked in and trapped there, listening to the bishop’s teachings for eternity.

Elsewhere on the walls, there are markings from the cathedral’s original architects: rather than working from a modern day set of design drawings, the plans for the arches were scratched on the wall. The graffiti continues right the way through from medieval times to the modern day: Steve logs the most recent example as Easter 2015. For him and his team, the challenge now is to catalogue the thousands of pieces of graffiti unearthed and to make sense of them all.

Graffiti is far from a modern phenomenon: the earliest known piece of graffiti still existing is an advert for a brothel from Ephesus in ancient Greece. It was common, too, in Roman times, as the ruins of Pompeii show. Just last month, a network of tunnels was found under Salisbury Plain, used to train First World War soldiers before they departed for the trenches. Once again, the walls were covered with hundreds of examples of graffiti.

Wherever there are people, there is graffiti. The cathedral project offers a fascinating snapshot of this alternative history: a glimpse across the centuries of the ordinary people who, in their own way, made their mark.

The next Salisbury Cathedral Graffiti Tour is on Friday, June 16. Visit for details.