Eight hundred years ago, a cheeky stonemason who helped build Spain’s most famous cathedral hid a self portait in a dark corner atop a 42-foot pillar

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain is probably one of the most famous in the world. Built in the 12th century, this UNESCO world heritage site draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago every year. But even here, there are new secrets to be discovered.

Art historian Jennifer Alexander of the University of Warwick recently carried out a stone-by-stone survey of the cathedral. Hidden high up in a dark nook, she spotted a lone male figure peering down from the top of a 42-foot pillar. Her explanation? It’s probably a self portrait cheekily snuck in by one of the original stonemasons!

“You find this in medieval buildings,” she told the Observer. “They’re usually in dark corners where only another stonemason would find them. This one is in a bit of the building where you’d have to be a stonemason to be up there to see it. It’s tucked away in among a whole set of capitals [the top of a column] that are otherwise plain.

“He’s got a nice little smile. He’s pleased with himself. He’s splendidly carved, with a strongly characterized face,” Alexander said.

Despite the incredible talent of medieval stonemasons, they are often anonymous; their names left undocumentad or lost to history. But sometimes, they do manage to leave an identifying mark.

In fact, our recent excavation of the medieval drawbridge pit at Pontefract Castle revealed dozens of masons’ marks left by the people who carved the blocks that were used to build it. More news about these discoveries will be available soon.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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