What began as a way for her students to have more hands-on experience with epigraphy blossomed into an enormous international project. At least 50 people have contributed thus far, and there is still much, much more to do.
Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University, didn’t want to simply teach about ancient Roman monuments; she wanted her students to try to edit inscriptions directly.
Image of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius by Frans Sellies, courtesy of Getty Images
She, herself, has been studying Ancient Roman epigraphy for years. Most people might recognize the wealth of text carved in stone throughout the Roman Empire. But what most might not know is just how much ancient graffiti remains.
“One of the fascinating aspects of ancient graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel said, “is that when they do survive, they survive exactly where they existed in a way that stone inscriptions almost never do.”
Electoral campaign messages in Via dell’Abbondanza, Pompeii, Italy; October, 2004; photo by Raphael Gaillarde, courtesy of Getty Images.
Stone, inscribed or not, could be reused in ancient, as well as not so ancient, structures. (This is how the famous Rosetta Stone was found in Egypt. Originally a public notice carved in stone, one of Napolean’s soldiers discovered it amongst reused construction material when rebuilding a fort—a stone saying the exact same thing in three languages: ancient Greek, Demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphs.)
Graffiti, on the other hand, exists in the very place it was etched into plaster by their ancient writers. This is significant, and not just because where people left their messages might surprise us today.
“[U]nlike modern graffiti, we find [ancient graffiti] inside people’s homes,” offered Dr. Alex Pappas, Assistant Professor of Classics at San Francisco State University, “which invites questions about who’s reading these, who’s seeing them, who’s understanding them inside as opposed to just outside on the street.”
Dr. Benefiel’s enthusiasm for epigraphy is infectious. We connected by video conference to discuss the Ancient Graffiti Project this past summer. In August, the project held a 5-day workshop on Ancient Greek Graffiti at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC. It was on the last day of that workshop that I was able to ‘meet’ Dr. Benefiel, her colleague, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, their students and other members of the Ancient Graffiti Project such as Dr. Alex Pappas. From the position of the camera, I was able to witness an entire room full of scholars at work.
The energy in that room, the passion expressed by both professors and students as they answered my questions, was almost palpable. And really, that level of enthusiasm is very easy to understand.
So much of Earth’s history is abstract. That abstraction is wonderful for the imagination, but frustrating when one genuinely wants to know who ancient people were, what they hoped and dreamed, what their daily lives were like, how they may have struggled or thrived.
Ancient writing reaches through the ages in ways that artifacts do not. It has the power to revive—even if only slightly–those who lived so long ago and are now gone.
And because the eruption of 79 CE buried so much of Pompeii and Herculaneum, we are able to see graffiti in-situ in ways that other ancient sites might not provide. Unlike text carved in stone, anyone could scratch their message into plaster walls. Much like today, those messages are from everyday people and include political sentiment, sexual conquests, the simple declaration of “I was here” and more.
Frescoes in the Criptoporticus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. The six domus restorations were carried out under the 105-million euro Great Pompeii Project funded by the European Commission and aimed at safeguarding the unique UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.
Studying those messages, however, is not new. When I asked about the resources available to those who wish to work with ancient Roman graffiti, Dr. Benefiel mentioned a series of books entitled the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (“CIL” for short). She pointed the camera to the end of the table, where scholars were pouring over two enormous tomes.
There are currently 17 volumes in that series, not including supplemental volumes, each volume specific to the graffiti within a modern country or region that was once part of the Roman Empire. These books were first published in the 1800s. Since that time, more sites have been excavated, new graffiti has been discovered, not to mention that the entire system of mapping and naming within Pompeii has changed.
Oh, and the entire series—including directions to the graffiti themselves—is in Latin.
“Working with CIL is certainly not a quick or easy process,” explained Dr. Benefiel. “It requires a lot of correlation and patience.”
Floor covered with mosaics in the Pacuius Proculus Domus, one of six restored domus at UN World Heritage Site Pompeii, on December 24, 2015 during the official opening to the public. Photo by Mario Laporta; caption and image courtesy of Getty Images.
Dr. Benefiel’s own scholarship—the questions she pondered as she tried to work with ancient graffiti—and her work with the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR) helped to bring about the Ancient Graffiti Project.
The EDR is another staggering endeavor to bring ancient writing to the 21st century. This resource, in conjunction with other databases, seeks to provide free online access to inscriptions made throughout the entire Ancient World.
The idea for the Ancient Graffiti Project arose after she and her students digitized an entire Pompeii city block for the EDR. What if there were a resource, she wondered, that provided information regarding where each graffito was found? Rather than studying ancient words in isolation, she wanted to give that writing context.
Working with a colleague in computer science, they and their students created a search engine that pulled in information of that digitized city block. The Ancient Graffiti Project is the result, and it is the remarkable work of ever-growing collaboration.
Photo of Dr. Holly Sypniewski and a student experimenting with an iPad for photo documentation of a graffito at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project
As Dr. Holly Sypniewski, Assistant Director for Digitization (Ancient Graffiti Project) and Interim Associate Dean of Arts and Humanities at Millsaps College, explained, “Rebecca and I both teach at liberal private arts colleges and universities where we have pretty considerable teaching loads. We’re not at large research institutions, and we don’t have graduate students to work with us on our projects. We have our undergraduate students, and this has been, for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of this project: finding ways to get my students involved in hands-on research that gives them the opportunity to apply their knowledge in exciting ways. Our students conduct research on inscriptions, use technology to manipulate images, organize data, and work on the coding end of the Ancient Graffiti Project Database. We are lucky to work with such talented students!”
In addition to those from Millsaps and Washington and Lee, students from the University of Richmond contribute to the project under the supervision of Dr. Erika Zimmermann Damer, a project member.
“They’re working with primary evidence in a way that you often don’t get to when we’re talking about 2000 years ago,” added Dr. Benefiel. “And they’re building something. They’re helping design a tool, a tool that we want to be able to be used both by the scholarly community and the public at-large because graffiti, they fascinate! They capture your attention. So if someone wants to know how you might draw a camel 2000 years ago, they can find it!”
Photo of two students measuring a graffito for Ancient Graffiti Project records at Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project
The sheer amount of graffiti within homes in Pompeii—not to mention their very central and visible locations—might give modern readers pause. Certainly, there was graffiti upon ancient walls and structures (even tombs!) But what does that indicate? Why were people writing inside? Why weren’t these messages written in less-trafficked areas or painted over by their residents?
Dr. Benefiel poses these questions and others in the book Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, co-edited with Peter Keegan and published this year. Discussing graffiti in Pompeii alone, she mentions that 1700 examples were found outside on building walls and 1000 examples on public buildings (including about 100 examples in the purpose-built brothel).
The number of graffiti found within homes?
It is important to note that, although graffiti may have been etched into central rooms and hallways within a home, one could easily miss it. These were not brightly colored declarations; they were etchings in plaster. Interestingly, those who wrote these messages took pains not to write over existing graffiti. Rather, messages may occur near and around each other. These messages also avoided all wall paintings, respecting the artwork contained within.
Seeing examples of writing prompts even further questions. Who was writing these messages? What percentage of the population was literate? Can one decipher the gender of the author?
“We have many more names of men appearing in the graffiti, however, we have women who are being addressed in the graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel responded.
Examples she gave are:
“Greetings to Quartilla.”
“Greetings to Sabina.”
“And we do have some graffiti that are written from the perspective of a woman. So we have ‘Methe’, the female name, ‘loves Chrestus’ and then a prayer: “May Pompeian Venus be propitious to both of them, may they live harmoniously.”
Mary Beard, in her 2008 book The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, states that anyone could have written the graffiti in Pompeii; this was not just a function of the elite. All members of ancient Roman society appear to have participated. In one example, she suggests that the imprints of coins, pressed into the plaster close to the floor, is the work of a child. In another, she wonders whether ancient looters may have etched the words “House tunneled” near the door of one house, referencing the type of entry required for anyone to access the buried rooms.
The example given by Dr. Benefiel above illustrates this even further. When discussing her favorite graffito, she added details as to why this same graffito was her favorite.
“1) It starts with the name ‘Methe’ and then it says, 2) ‘She’s a slave of a woman named Cominia. 3) She’s from the town of Atella. 4) And she loves Chrestus.’ So she’s a slave, she’s a female, and she’s got three identifying markers: We know who she is, we know where she comes from, we know who she belongs to. She’s expressing her love. And then she’s writing—in a public space—to Pompeian Venus, who was the divinity for the city, and she writes a remarkably touching prayer.”
“I like the fact that [graffiti] can sometimes tell us a little bit about the people who are writing them,” she continued, “and they can tell us what they were thinking, but also what mattered to them.”
Artifacts, artwork and writing with Pompeii and Herculaneum indicate that these were multicultural cities with influences that extended beyond the Roman empire. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this lies within the statuette of Lakshmi, an Indian goddess. Graffiti within those cities appears in both Latin and Greek, sometimes a mixture of the two in the same graffito.
Photo of the entire Herculaneum Graffiti Project team from summer 2014 in the Augustalium in Herculaneum; courtesy of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project for which Dr. Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (University of the South) serves as the Field Director.
“[There are] all sorts of fun obstacles to overcome,” Dr. Benefiel replied with a laugh when I asked her about any difficulties when translating the graffiti.
“They were written by individuals, in their individualized handwriting, with their individualized thoughts. There is no mediator between the person who’s writing and the final text.
“So you have to understand the handwriting, you have to understand the inside joke, you have to understand abbreviations or non-abbreviations, you have to understand that an ‘e’ can be written as two vertical lines or as we write an ‘e’.
“When we get to the Greek graffiti, there’s something even more special happening because we’re operating in an environment where you’ve got a mix of cultures. So some people are bilingual (some people are speaking Latin and Greek). Some others are much more comfortable in Latin and could throw a word of Greek in here and there. Others are native Greek speakers that are now living in a Latin environment. Others are travelers passing through.”
Contemporary graffiti on a picnic bench at Musquash Conservation Area in NH; photo taken by the author of this blog
After working and researching so many different graffiti, presumably written by so many different people, I wondered if either Dr. Benefiel or Dr. Sypniewski gained any insight into these ancient people. Did they, for example, see any big differences between those writing ancient graffiti with those who do so today?
“I would say that you see the exact same range of graffiti in antiquity, for the most part, as you would today,” said Dr. Sypniewski. “Perhaps with the exception of the simple artistic tagging. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on decorative letter shapes because the medium doesn’t allow for that. It’s much harder to draw into plaster than it is to spray paint, for example, or to paint over something.”
Contemporary graffiti; photo by Mr. Din, courtesy of Getty Images
“I would suggest,” Dr. Benefiel offered, “that what we see from the ancient graffiti is that in antiquity people were using graffiti to communicate positive messages much more frequently than we do today.”
Matthew Loar, then a PhD graduate from Stanford, now an Assistant Professor at the University Nebraska-Lincoln, had the following to say: “I think oftentimes when people study Classics, they study Greek and Latin literature. They’re looking at words on a page; it’s very 2-dimensional. You get this sense of a society that was highly literate and was reading and writing high forms of literature. At least, this is what I thought once upon a time as a young undergraduate.
“But I think the thing about graffiti is that you realize that this was a really playful culture, that writing was very much an everyday practice. It was very ad-hoc. Every surface was game for writing. I mean, there are words all over the city in every place that you look, on every wall—inside, outside—homes, taverns, brothels, forums….you name it; there is writing on the wall there.
“I think that was a really surprising thing for me to learn at first. And it makes me feel like I can still wax poetic. I can commune with the ancients when [I] walk through the city of Pompeii or Herculaneum.”
House of the Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum; photo by Images Etc. Ltd, courtesy of Getty Images
“I think one of the fabulous things about graffiti,” Dr. Benefiel mused, “is that when you look at them, there’s an immediacy. If you get a sense of what the handwriting looks like, it takes you to the person that was writing that graffito.
“I think that it’s hard to think about a graffito without the person behind it. And so in that way, when we are thinking about these writings, we are repopulating the city.”
I cannot thank Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Dr. Holly Sypniewski, their students or colleagues enough for graciously enabling me to interrupt their work at the Center for Hellenic Studies this past summer!! Given the collaborative nature of Dr. Benefiel and the Project entire, it is not surprising that she generously invited me to speak with multiple scholars, rather than doing a one-on-one interview. I was excited and amazed then; I remain excited and amazed now. Thank you all for your remarkable generosity and thoughtfulness! I cannot wait to learn more and see for myself how your project evolves!
You, too, can follow the Ancient Graffiti Project or test out their search engine at http://ancientgraffiti.wlu.edu!
- Ancient Graffiti Project website
- The Culture of Writing Graffiti within Domestic Spaces at Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 80 – 110 of Inscriptions in the Private Sphere in the Greco-Roman World, Edited by Rebecca Benefiel and Peter Keegan, 2016, Brill Publishers
- Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and More: The Culture of Word-Games among the Graffiti of Pompeii, by Rebecca R. Benefiel, pg. 65 – 79 of The Muse at Play: Riddles and Wordplay in Greek and Latin Poetry, Edited by Jan Kwapisz, David Petrain and Mikolaj Szymanski, 2012, De Gruyter
- Dialogues of Ancient Graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii, Rebecca R. Benefiel, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 114, No. 1, January 2010
- The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, by Mary Beard, 2008, Belknap Press of Harvard University