Medieval Monastic Graffitti

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One of the most recent additions to the on-line catalogue of the Museum of National Antiquities in Stockholm is deliciously enigmatic. It’s a little sandstone tablet (SHM 18011:100) measuring 73 by 60 mm, covered on both sides with vaguely script-like and architectonic graffitti. The edges are neatly notched, prompting a museum curator to suggest in the inventory notes that the tablet may have been intended as a yarn spool, nystvända. But no-one really knows.

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The tablet was found by Sigurd Curman’s team in 1919 during excavations among the ruins of the nunnery of Vreta in Östergötland. The find spot was in the south-west corner of the nunnery’s smaller quad. Vreta is within sight of my late-1st Millennium site in Kaga parish. A Benedictine nunnery was founded there c. AD 1110 as Sweden’s first documented monastic institution. In 1162 it was handed over to the Cistercian order, and remained so until the Reformation. The last documentary mention of nuns at Vreta dates from 1562.

My buddy Göran Tagesson has recently re-opened excavations at Vreta to study something that may have been a baptisterium, an subterranean baptismal pool. Check his site out!

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Comments

  1. #1 JG
    May 23, 2007

    A modest proposal: The object might have been used for sharpening pointed objects i.e. as a whetstone for needles or awls. The user might have liked to use it in such a way that graffitti was created.

  2. #2 Dungan
    May 23, 2007

    What strikes me is the similiarity of these designs to prehistoric rock art from the world over. The so-called “entoptic imagery” of nested curves, girdwork, dots and meanders. Jeremy Dronfield – out of Cambridge i think – has done some pioneering work on Irish Megaliths, and he suggests that cultures that employ this sort of imagery also engage in altered states of consciousness. the next question is: was it the prayers or the mead?

  3. #3 mary.e.starr
    May 23, 2007

    I like the awl-sharpening idea, but when I have seen such, they will be wider grooves, and generally on the face. Were they still using bone awls or needles? Another analogy might be to the High Plains catlinite tobacco-cutting tablets; they often have images scratched on the flat faces. Finally, might it be a talley, for making syure all the cows or sheep are in? A notched stick, that you move a fingernail down, is good for keeping track of how many you counted (if you can’t count). Any microscopic study to determine how the lines and notches were made?

  4. #4 Martin R
    May 24, 2007

    To my eye, the engravings look too shallow and non-repetitive to be the product of needle-sharpening. In fact, they look a lot like idle (non-tripping) doodles.

    No microscopic study that I know of.

  5. #5 JG
    May 24, 2007

    I do agree with you, Martin, that it looks like idle doodles. But in order to sharpen a needle on a whetstone you have better not moving it back and forth. The pointed end will not be very sharp if you don’t move the needle only in the direction from the pointed end on a sandstone surface.
    The doodles might perhaps e. g. have been inscribed by one young novice on a whetstone belonging to another novice, which the former disliked. Probably it is possible to imagine several other reasons for inscribing these doodles, isn’t it? Humans seem to find countless reasons for producing graffiti.

  6. #6 Martin R
    May 24, 2007

    I totally think they “did” it, like, to reify and renegotiate their social “reality”.

  7. #7 JG
    May 24, 2007

    I see. Why didn’t I realize it before? Postmodernity explains it all. How stupid of me!

  8. #8 Martin R
    May 24, 2007

    What’s really hot right now is to excavate middens. It’s called compost-modernism.

  9. #9 JG
    May 24, 2007

    Oh, so now the excavations have been extended to living rich microfossil cultures! I always thought that archaeology dealt almost exclusivly to dig for remains of cultures already long dead. By the way, have the compost-modernist found methane among the finds? There seem to be some very wide-spread concern about this matter nowadays as a green-house gas. This might develop into a flowering field, I guess.

  10. #10 Dungan
    May 24, 2007

    i suppose my comment was half tongue-in-cheek; there is certainly an “air of doodliness” to these enigmatic scratchings. in a perfect world some historic source could help account for it. but what is that “air of doodliness?” I’ve seen a lot of Ameri-Indian rock art that looks idle to me too, but has solid ethnohistory that sez otherwise (ie David Whitley/great basin).

    thanks for the forum! i appreciate the work you put into your blog.

  11. #11 m.e.starr
    May 26, 2007

    I was going to come back and say that maybe they did it for the fun of it, but I see y’all have alreday covered that. Did y’all ever carve notches around your school desk? It’s quite fun, in a mindless and distracted sort of way. Also, notches and fringes and checkering look ever so cool–prettymuch the worldwide oppinion.
    It sure doesn’t look like a whetstone, and with the runes on the face it’s evidently something more than idleness.
    Also, entopic patterns can be occasioned by many things besides trips–very hungry, sleeplessness and staring hard into the dark come to mind in a nunnery in the Northlands.
    Context is everything–any info other than the find site of “smaller quad”? It could heve been brought from an earlier site, as a “manuport” of curiosity or veneration.

  12. #12 Martin R
    May 26, 2007

    I don’t think the nuns of Vreta were quite that ascetic. But it’s an early dig with little control of stratigraphy, so it’s hard to say much about the context. The graffitti looks a lot like what we get on the wall plaster of standing Medieval churches erected during the time of the Vreta nunnery.

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