• Rose Smith

Graffiti Through Ancient History

Photo Source: Pixabay

When I was in high school, one of my favorite things to do was flip through the classwork textbooks to search for doodles and graffiti in the margins. Some were fun illustrations or snarky quips at the text. Other times they were the names of the people of years’ past. These little bits of vandalism were always fun and amusing to me. What’s interesting, though, is that just as we might see doodles of time’s past in old calculus books, there are examples of ancient graffiti as well.

One of the earliest forms of graffiti was estimated to be from between 13,000 and 9,000 BC (Vintage News). While it’s harder to say whether it’s art or graffiti, it is a series of handprints all over the inside wall of a cave. Aptly, the piece of work is referred to La Cueva de los Manos, or The Cave of Hands. Sometimes graffiti used to act as advertisements. For instance, an etching of a foot, a hand, or a heart in a Greek town was a sign that there was a brothel around. In the Kingdom of Kush, otherwise known as modern-day Sudan, there are various etchings of animals and mythical creatures of the complex known as The Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufa (Mental Floss). The exact meaning of the carvings is not clear, but some historians theorize that it could have to do with animal trading stations.

Not all graffiti was advertisements back then. Ancient Rome and Greece have plenty of old etchings and markings where they shouldn’t. Some of them were details of sexual encounters that happened there or a declaration of love for someone else (Kashgar). In one timeless instance, researchers found the carving of a phallus and a caricature of an officer (The Guardian). The etching was dated to be about 1800 years old, meaning it was probably left by a Roman soldier. Graffiti also seemed to act as a sort of review board. In Pompeii, written on one of the walls of a restaurant, was “The finances officer of the emperor Nero says this food is poison” (Kashgar). In ancient Egypt, archaeologists found at least 1000 inscriptions in the tomb of Ramses VI in the Valley of the Kings (Mental Floss). Among those etchings was a very disgruntled tourist, stating, “I visited and did not like anything except for the sarcophagus!” Some graffiti was a simple tagging to let others know that they were there. For instance, a Viking etching on the Hagia Sofia in modern-day Turkey reads, “Halvdan was here” (Vintage News).

While technology gets more advanced, some things stay the same, including the seemingly irresistible urge to tag buildings. Sometimes they’re advertisements, messages for the next person about the food, tags, or even raunchy drawings. When we look back on these ancient vandals, it almost re-contextualizes some of the textbook doodles and bathroom etchings we see today. In fact, one could even say they have a century-spanning legacy.

If you are interested in reading more ancient graffiti, Kashgar has compiled some of the best Pompeii graffiti here. I do warn you that many of these are kind of raunchy, but they’re still quite fun to read.

Rose Smith is the blog editor of Twenty-two Twenty-eight. When she isn’t writing about the world around her, she is often found listening to music, watching movies, and going on walks with her dogs.

You can find her on Instagram here and on Twitter here.