When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum in fatal volcanic ash, the destructive process famously entombed the remains of residents and their material culture. It also, miraculously, preserved their social networks. Just as we DM each other or post to our friend’s Facebook pages today, residents of these ancient cities would take charcoal to a wall to leave a message, or simply scratch them in, line by line.
Since the 1800s, archaeologists have found several thousand examples of these notes at Pompeii, and hundreds at Herculaneum. They appear in public settings, left like latrinalia or tags, and even inside private houses. Scholars consider them an ancient form of graffiti, although these scrawls carried none of the stigma attached to contemporary scribbles and drawings. This graffiti served as an everyday form of communication and self-expression. Inscriptions have ranged from casual greetings (like a simple, “Hello to Primigenius!”) to cartoon-like drawings. The famous Herculaneum home known as the House of the Stags features several drawings of deer and columns that resemble the statues found in the house’s garden room.
“The first century AD was a time without easy and cheap access to writing materials, so the wall plaster served as a message board for the city,” Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons, assistant professor of classics at the University of Mississippi, told Hyperallergic. “People in Herculaneum used graffiti to keep track of things, much in the way we might use scratch paper today. Other times the graffiti express their thoughts and wishes.”
Sammons serves as the Field Director for the Ancient Graffiti Project, a digital resource that is working to increase public access to graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Since 2013, an international team of scholars led by Rebecca R. Benefiel, associate professor of classics at Washington and Lee University, has been building the website as a platform to publish and catalog these inscriptions, complete with images and translations into English. (They focus on Latin and Greek graffiti.) Users can explore examples through a search engine and even browse them through interactive maps that show where graffiti appear.
The current records all stem from on-site visits the team made in 2014 and 2016, accompanied by archaeology students. But the ancient cities, particularly Herculaneum, hold many more examples that still need to be documented. The Ancient Graffiti Project is now fundraising to travel to Herculaneum this summer, where archaeologists will spend two weeks with undergraduate students to train them and gather data. The online campaign, sponsored by the Friends of Herculaneum Society and the American Friends of Herculaneum, is hoping to raise a minimum of £13,000 (~$18,ooo US) by March 19; additional monies will go toward supporting equipment and perhaps another season of fieldwork.
Mostly small and easy to miss, these inscriptions are an invaluable resource. As personal writings, they provide us with a more complete and democratic understanding of many aspects of the ancient world.
“Most Classical literature that we have today was written by elite men,” Sammons said. “Ancient graffiti give us the perspective of the other 99% of society. We get an insight into what they were thinking, buying, loving, and desiring.”
The examples on the website already attest to the diverse range of writers who wrote on their city’s walls. One graffito, perhaps left by an individual of lower rank, reads, “Wine (was) received from the master seven days before the Ides of April.” Another, a line of the Greek alphabet found in a tavern along with numerical graffiti, may represent the efforts of a child practicing their letter-writing. They are marks that show a practice that is still familiar to us today, and likely will remain so for future generations, even as the tools we use evolve. One of the Ancient Graffiti Project’s chief goals is to ensure that such connections can be appreciated for many years to come.
“No matter how much conservation goes into the site, the wall plaster holding these graffiti is fragile, and it remains exposed to the elements,” Benefiel, the project’s director, said. “We are documenting these inscriptions for future scholars and researchers before they are lost forever.”