Culture

The Clandestine Cultural Knowledge of Ancient Graffiti

Remains of a pylon and the Temple of Dendûr in Dandūr, Egypt (photo by Maison Bonfils, late 19th century, courtesy and via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division)

Saqqara is an ancient Egyptian site that was used for burials over thousands of years. Of these, the most famous is the Step Pyramid of Djoser (a king of Egypt’s Third Dynasty) built roughly 4,700 years ago. Visit there today and one of the things you might see, in a building near the Step Pyramid, is a room with glass that protects an inscription. Not any ordinary inscription, this is actually tourist graffiti. Why protect graffiti? As it happens, this example of graffiti was left by a tourist at the site over 3,000 years ago.

Saqqara – Pyramid of Djoser complex – 18th and 19th Dynasty graffiti in the Southern Pavilion (2008) (photo by Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons)

Graffiti seems to be all around us, and ancient graffiti is no different. In fact, the word “graffiti” first entered the English language to describe ancient texts and images on the walls of houses at Pompeii. Prior to the 19th century, Italian words like sgraffito or sgraffiato were used to describe decorative techniques — in architecture as well as on pottery —where scratching through a whitewash revealed a different color beneath. As Italians in the early 19th century began to discover and make special note of the inscriptions and drawings on the walls, both interior and exterior, of Pompeii, the word was applied to them as well. Just how recently the word came to be used in English is indicated by an anonymous survey of publications of Pompeii graffiti in the Edinburgh Review of 1859: There we are told about the “so-called graffiti,” a term for which “it is hard to find an English equivalent.” The French have adopted it into their vocabulary, untranslated,” the reviewer adds.

What does “graffiti” mean? This question seems deceptively simple. Scholars use the term graffito (the singular form) in a technical sense to refer to something scratched on a surface. It contrasts with a painted drawing or inscription, which is sometimes called a dipinto. But graffiti also has a wider use among scholars that encompasses inscriptions in a variety of media — incised, painted, written in chalk or charcoal, and more.

What do all of these inscriptions share then? Today we are used to thinking of graffiti as somehow subversive or illegal. But ancient people didn’t necessarily see graffiti in this way at all. Consider the case of the Colossus of Memnon, a colossal statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III (c. 1350 BCE) at the site of Luxor (ancient Thebes). The legs of the statue are covered with careful inscriptions in Greek left by upper-class Roman travelers well over 1,000 years after the statue was set up. And not just Roman travelers, either. Next to a poignant text by Heliodorus of Caesarea Panias (the site of Banias, in modern Israel) remembering his brothers lie the names of the 19th-century French explorers and scholars Frédéric Cailliaud and Pierre-Constant Letorzec. Classicist Mary Beard has suggested that the various Greek texts are too professional and involved too much labor, to be labeled graffiti. But the work of graffiti artists, too, can be time-consuming and conform to professional standards. Perhaps we should not use these criteria to define graffiti.

Luxor (Thebes)—Colossus of Memnon (2015) (photos by Ross Burns/Manar al-Athar and courtesy University of Oxford)
Detail view, Luxor (Thebes)—Colossus of Memnon (2015) (photos by Ross Burns/Manar al-Athar and courtesy University of Oxford)

It is important to remember that graffiti is a modern word. Ancient people, as far as we know, did not have a real equivalent. This means that the concept is a modern category, and we have some freedom in how to define it. But neither experts nor the broader public, in describing ancient or modern graffiti, use the term to describe only hastily scribbled, amateurish text or pictures. What graffiti usually have in common is that they are informal and written on surfaces that were not originally planned for text. Because of this, they may tend to be unprofessional or quickly done, but that is by no means necessary.

Whatever the definition, scholars love ancient graffiti. Whether painted or inscribed, made quickly or over some time, these texts and drawings provide glimpses of a world otherwise largely invisible to us. Many examples of graffiti (but certainly not all) were inscribed by ordinary people who may not have engaged in other types of writing, or they might reflect the everyday lives of people — elite and non-elite — that is otherwise only hinted at in literary and historical sources. This potential has long been recognized. The anonymous Edinburgh Review author noted that “rightly considered, they are not only extremely curious in themselves, but also calculated to throw light on the every-day life and manners of the ancient world.” So much of what we know about the past comes from graffiti, from the earliest surviving examples of the alphabet (nearly 4,000-year-old graffiti at the site of Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai) to the earliest depiction of Jesus (the Alexamenos graffito, probably from the second or third century CE, showing a mocking depiction of Christ with a donkey’s head).

Alexamenos graffito (2005) (photo by Comrade King via Flickr)

Rock graffiti in the northern Arabian peninsula in an alphabet called Safaitic are providing important new information on the history of the region and of the Arabic language before Islam. The earliest examples of the Armenian alphabet are pilgrims’ graffiti on the routes to Mt. Sinai. At a large site like Pompeii there may be a huge variety of graffiti, in several different languages, from ads for gladiatorial games, to campaign advertisements, to bragging about sex.

Armenian, Greek, and Coptic graffiti (with drawings) collected on the route to Mt. Sinai by Napoleon’s expedition (Description de l’Égypte, vol. 5 (1822), pl. 57; drawn by Jean Marie Joseph Coutelle, engraved by Nicolas Xavier Willemin) (via NYPL digital collections)

If anything, academic attention to ancient graffiti is increasing. This is reflected in the production of new works dedicated solely to the study of ancient graffiti. The past year saw the publication of Scribbling through History, an edited volume (based on a 2013 workshop) with contributions on ancient and medieval graffiti; and Karen Stern’s Writing on the Wall, the first general study of ancient Jewish graffiti. The Ancient Graffiti Project has drawn attention for its efforts to make the graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum (another ancient Italian town destroyed and buried by Vesuvius) available to the public. Just this October, the announcement of a new graffito at Pompeii, though overhyped to suggest it might “rewrite history,” pointed to valuable new evidence not only for debate over the date of Pompeii’s destruction but also for ancient seasonality in cultural practices and economic activities.

Election graffiti at Pompeii (2010) (photo by Mirko Tobias Schäfer via Flickr)

But as much as archaeologists, heritage professionals, media outlets and governments love ancient graffiti, they seem to condemn modern graffiti at ancient sites just as much. Graffiti is “defacement,” vandalism, defilement, demonstrates a fundamental lack of respect. It leaves historic structures “disfigured.” Heritage trusts in the UK call acts of graffiti “attacks” and are concerned that graffiti is “visually disturbing.” Those responsible “should be ashamed.” At best graffiti is “shocking” and “brazenly reckless”; at worst it is lumped in with terrorism. “The walls become black or white from all the names,” according to a 1956 Israeli magazine article by Z. Lavie. “A new history was glued to them: Izhak from Kiryat Motzkin decided to love Rina of Migdal Ashkelon, especially on the tomb of one of the followers of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi.” Surveying these acts more recently, Israeli archaeologist Raz Kletter called inscribing graffiti a “stubborn and stupid habit,” that “became a plague.”

Pieter Saenredam, “The Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht” (1644) (photograph 2017) National Gallery, London (photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons)

But seeing graffiti as vandalism is hardly a universal attitude throughout history. After all, wealthy citizens of Pompeii often wrote graffiti on the interior walls of their own homes. Scholars such as Juliet Fleming have shown that graffiti was perhaps the most common form of writing in early modern England. Far from an attempt to deface, much of this activity was a sign of respect, an homage, or even a stab at transcendence. From ancient synagogues to medieval and early modern European churches to the Western Wall in Jerusalem a century ago, graffiti was often meant as communication with or about the divine. Sometimes it was an attempt by the author to preserve her own memory, or the memory of something or someone else, beyond her brief lifetime. On his visit in 1866, the Liberian politician and educator Edward Wilmot Blyden inscribed not only his name but also the word “Liberia” at the entrance of the Great Pyramid at Giza, next to hundreds of names from the previous 300 years. “There is a tolerable degree of certainty,” Blyden later wrote, “that the name at least of that little Republic will go down to posterity.”

For the 19th-century photographer Félix Bonfils and his studio, graffiti could serve a commercial purpose, as in his advertisement placed on the gate of the ancient Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek. But gradually the Bonfils ad was covered by graffiti from visitors — in this case local visitors — left in both Arabic and Latin script in emulation of European travelers. At the Temple of Dendur, amid the many inscribed names of European travelers, a Bonfils photograph shows the studio name painted on the temple walls. But also visible is the brief text “Girgis, photographer,” perhaps referring to the pioneering Beirut-based photographer Georges Sabounji. Bonfils’s local assistants were generally anonymous, but here at least one has left his mark for posterity.

Entrance to the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon (c. 1880) (photo by Félix Bonfils; via Carpenter Collection, Library of Congress)

These cases of graffiti, made as recently as a century or two ago, have been misunderstood over and over as illicit, or subversive, or profane, but this is merely projecting current views of graffiti onto a past that looked at it quite differently. Writing on walls, whether public or private, interior or exterior, was widely accepted in Europe (not to mention throughout the world) through the early modern period and even later — if not continuously, then at least in many times and places up to modernity. Against such a background, this “stupid habit” actually looks like an historical norm. It may the view of inscribing graffiti as stupid that is unusual.

Entrance to the Temple of Baachus, (c. 1873; print 1877) Alais, France; detail of graffiti ; tinted albumen silver print; 28.4 × 23.2 cm (11 3/16 × 9 1/8 in.) (photo by Félix Bonfils via J. Paul Getty Museum)

It is probably not a coincidence that the word arose in the 19th century. That is, graffiti was named and considered a separate category around the same time that inscribing walls and monuments was no longer seen as accepted social practice. Graffiti only needed to be named once it was seen as something abnormal. Perhaps it is also not a coincidence that the 19th century is when, as historian David Lowenthal wrote, the past became a “foreign country.” In Western Europe and North America, attitudes toward the past then changed. The past came to be viewed as something very different from the present and, as a result, something vital to preserve. In particular this may explain changing attitudes toward modern graffiti at ancient sites.

The contradiction in our typical attitudes toward ancient and modern graffiti was perfectly captured in a letter to the Times of London from 1990:

If I find, one morning, “John Scott 1990” cut into may gatepost, I am outraged; if round the other side I come upon “Iohn Scot 1790,” I am delighted; and if under layers of paint I discover “Iohan Scotus MCCCXC” I shall probably get a letter in The Times.

The author goes on to ask, “At what point in time, then, does the vandal move from prosecution to preservation?” Ancient graffiti experts J.A. Baird and Claire Taylor juxtapose the near reverence for ancient tourist graffiti in Egypt with the outcry against a Chinese tourist who inscribed his name on a temple at Luxor. Should we condemn modern tourist graffiti at Egyptian sites when it sits near Roman tourist graffiti that we applaud and preserve? Should we condemn the inscriptions of religious Jews on the Western Wall a hundred years ago as disfigurement and vandalism? What would happen if there had been graffiti scolds two or three thousand years ago? How much knowledge of the past would be lost to us? And are we depriving future generations of something by clamping down on graffiti at these sites so severely?

Entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, with graffiti: crosses and inscriptions in Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian (2012) (photo by Djampa via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps preservation should not be the only or even the most important value at historic sites and monuments. In a provocative speech at the Oxford Literary Festival, Mary Beard suggested that restricting the site of Pompeii to academics would be a worse fate than seeing its ruins deteriorate. “The world isn’t going to stop if Pompeii loses a house.” This is not an attempt to encourage graffiti making at ancient sites, or other deliberate damage. But perhaps we should think a bit differently about the practice.

Worshipers and graffiti at the Western Wall, Jerusalem, early 20th century (photo by American Colony photo department, via Matson Photograph collection, Library of Congress)

Graffiti gives us a wealth of information about human history, but it does so much more than that. It provides a vivid way to think about our relationship to the past, how people long ago were much like us and yet separated from us by a giant gulf at the same time. People in the past often had very different attitudes toward things like informal writing on walls, and often put such writing to very different uses. Yet, for them, as for us, graffiti often shares the same peculiar combination of a mundane act with striving for immortality, for something after or beyond our own lives. Phenomena like travelers leaving graffiti at the sites they visit seem to persist throughout human history. The 3,000-year-old graffiti at Saqqara, remarkably enough, was left at a time when the Step Pyramid was already ancient. Perhaps more than anything else, graffiti provides us with a sense of wonder — at human existence in all of its contradictions.




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