Rob Hardy: Ancient Graffiti


Rob Hardy



Go through any city and you will find graffiti written on any available surface. The stuff we see nowadays is usually spray-painted, and while some of it is just stupid and offensive, some has real artistry and style. Graffiti, of course, was not invented along with the spray can. It could famously be found on the walls of Pompeii, and also in Rome and in Egypt, and just about everywhere else in the ancient world.


Did it perform the same function of tagging that much graffiti does today? Were the ones making graffiti in ancient days simply Banksy prototypes? Was graffiti a protest by the downtrodden? Was it an eyesore for pedestrians? You can't tell without context, and that is just what a new volume within the Routledge Studies in Ancient History aims to provide. "Ancient Graffiti in Context" is edited by J. A. Baird, who lectures on archaeology at the University of London, and Claire Taylor, who lectures in Greek History at Trinity College Dublin. It represents presentations at a workshop examining graffiti in 2008, and has chapters from seven other scholars. It explains how our vision of what ancient graffiti means and meant has changed over time, and how we can use context to best understand it.


The book starts with a famous epigraph: "I'm amazed, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins, you who support the tediousness of so many writers." That was found on a wall in Pompeii, and indicates not only a level of humor but also that there were lots of people writing graffiti (tedious or not). By the time Pompeii was excavated, everyone knew and appreciated the serious and beautiful nature of ancient art and carving, but scratching pictures, sayings, names or curses into walls was something different. ("Graffiti" literally has to do with scratching a mark into the surface; "dipinti" means marks made by painting, but the former term has become inclusive.)



Graffiti has often been consigned to some "lower" interest by academics for several reasons. No one doubts that the official inscriptions in buildings or monuments are worthy of study, but graffiti seems unofficial. In Baird's study of graffiti in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, she notes that inscriptions on altars that looked like the work of a professional sculptor were subject to study, but those that were obviously done by amateurs (even though they were planned and made in all piety) were too negligible for inclusion as inscriptions at all.


Not only was graffiti held to be too lowly for serious study, it was thought to have been made by members of the lower social stratum. More recent work shows that this was not the case. In Pompeii, for instance, the range of graffiti includes political postings, advertisements for sporting events, simple greetings and metrical poetry, the variety of all types indicating that not just one social stratum participated in the writing. The idea that like recent graffiti, ancient graffiti should be considered some sort of subversive act is also questionable. Graffiti might have been made by the authorities of a city, and some of it is praise of city fathers from grateful citizens. Inscriptions in a marketplace might be less vandalism than, say, a popularly-accepted call for help from deities. Nor should graffiti be always considered defacement; in Pompeii there were scratches on interior walls that seem to have been written and accepted by the inhabitants.


Pompeian graffiti is the most famous of that of the ancient world, and although one of the purposes of this volume is to expand the range and compare graffiti from less famous sites, Pompeii necessarily gets a great deal of attention here. The chapter specifically devoted to Pompeii concerns graffiti found on the interior walls of the House of the Four Styles. There is no analogue to our current way of life; the majority of Pompeian homes had graffiti inside them. Significantly, in this particular house are a gathering of greeting or well-wishing messages to women, a friend-to-friend communication that indicates that at least here were women who could read and write (literacy for the time and region has been estimated to be 15 percent, with women significantly less). The inscriptions are in capital letters, rather than in cursive script, and show uneven spacing to indicate that the writers may have not had much practice. These inscriptions also are signed, showing as in other examples that anonymity was not a concern, and these were not furtive pranks. Furthermore, examination of the placement of the inscriptions shows that they were put in prominent places, and where light might fall upon them; they were meant to be read.


Baird says that some of the graffiti in Dura-Europos are drawings of animals and writings of nonsense, and that these were thought by the original excavators to be magical tokens of some sort. Amusingly, they might merely be the work of children. There is a chapter here on children's graffiti, markings of particular importance for any clues they can give about the place of children within Roman houses. The locations of such markings seem to indicate that there was no specific area within a Roman house dedicated solely to children.


Children might have had the run of the entire house, but there is a lack of children's graffiti in, say, the kitchens and the atria, indicating that these areas held social expectations for appropriate behavior. Another chapter has to do with the epigraphic habit, "the cultural impulse to record information on stone and other durable materials." Again, the definition of what graffiti is has to be broad; carving a message in stone required more time and effort than just chalking or scratching it on a wall. Yet people thought it was important enough to carve erotic texts and pictures onto rocks high on mountainsides as some sort of memorialization. The pictures include phalluses, but also include carvings of footprints, which might be a more ambiguous allusion to a sexualized body part or a symbol of coitus. I could not help thinking that we moderns have it easier in carving a heart into a tree for commemoration of the same thing.


There is a chapter here to examine how graffiti was used in a form more familiar to us, that of expressing dissent. Satirical and anti-tyrannical expressions were injected into the urban spaces of the Roman empire. The elites of the empire were wary of such practices, but also engaged in them themselves. There are references to writers such as Plutarch or Suetonius who recognized the phenomenon and took trouble to write instances of it down, such as the writing on one of the immense arcades and arches that Domitian erected in the city, a comment by someone who was not impressed: "It's enough." Completely different are the graffiti examined in another chapter which were marks under the bases of vases or pots, marks which were put onto the pot after firing and which might be names, used to show ownership or as a trade mark. Putting it in the lowest site on the vase, under the base, did not mean the mark was hidden. Wall graffiti was obvious but static, but marks under a vase would be apparent when the vase was tipped upside down to pour its oil out.


Another chapter is devoted to a particular locale for graffiti writers, El Kanais in the Egyptian eastern desert. For three thousand years people have been going to the pharaonic temple there, and leaving messages. Many of these are fully comparable to graffiti of our own times. Someone might write just a name, or if that weren't enough would specify that the person of that name wrote the inscription ("Apollon wrote this.") Some wanted to put their tags up on dangerously high cliffs (like the bozos who climb bridges to do the same thing today). There was a good deal of religious graffiti, which is not something we usually see today, and much is dedicated to praise of Pan ("... who has saved me from the land of the Troglodytes ...").


One contributor quotes Plutarch: "Nothing useful or



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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