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Guest article by Albert Resonox

Defaced Buncton sheela-na-gig

Just off the A283, east of Washington, Sussex is the tiny village of Buncton, hidden behind a wooded glade across a wooden bridge, and just off Hole Street, is the charming little All Saints Chapel. It is said to date from the 11th century but records show that the church had land there long before any mention of the chapel.

Situated on a hillock just slightly out of a true north alignment with both the Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, the chapel itself is cobbled together out of several building materials, including Roman, Saxon and Norman  (possibly even older material) easily seen by just walking around the building, all of which adds to its rather quaint hotch-potch appeal.

Inside renovations revealed 12/13th century paintwork on the northern wall, an example of which has been left uncovered, also on the north wall there was a very rare example of a horizontal Sheela-na-gig; newly-weds were encouraged to climb a small step ladder to rub the carved stone as some sort of homage to a fertility rite, whose origins are long forgotten. So worn through years of rubbing, the feminine attributes associated with a Sheela-na-gig have become smooth she became known as the old man.

Sheela-na-gig before being defaced (note what appears to be a second sheela on the left)

Sheela-na-gigs are extremely rare in Sussex, and even rarer now, because in December 2004 someone not only defaced the carving but pulverised it and proceeded to carry on the destruction on the floor until nothing more than dust remained. The perpetrator would have been carrying a ladder, a club (hammer presumably) and chisel and know exactly when the church would be empty. You don’t have to be Holmes or Poirot to deduce that it was the work of more than one person, as a look-out would have been essential as well as someone to steady the ladder when the hammer was being wielded.

The Times Online even carried the story under the heading “Pagan Whodunnit Grips Village!” and one parishioner was quoted as saying that “whilst not condoning vandalism, the destruction was a good thing as there was no room for pagan activity in a Christian place of worship”.

If so, a petition to have it carefully removed and displayed in Worthing Museum would have been more appropriate although why anyone would wish to reject a valid part of their heritage is beyond me.  Blatant destruction and defacing of artefacts for whatever reasons, reeks of sinister motives to my sensibilities.

Buncton Chapel

Further reading. Sheela-na-Gigs: Unravelling an enigma by Barbara Freitag. pp. 3, 9, 148, 161. ISBN 0-415-34553-7.


February 2010

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