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Scribbling Through History: Graffiti, Places and People from Antiquity to Modernity

Scribbling Through History: Graffiti, Places and People from Antiquity to Modernity

Edited by Chloé Ragazolli, Ömür Harmansah, Chiara Salvador, and Elizabeth Frood. Pp. 264. Bloomsbury Academic, London 2018. $114. ISBN 9781474288835 (cloth).

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This volume, born out of a workshop of the same name held at the University of Oxford in 2013, includes contributions on graffiti ranging from inscriptions in the Memphite pyramid complexes (1543–1292 B.C.E.) to annotations in digital reading platforms (present day). While the scope of the book is diachronic and cross-regional, the methodology of each author has much in common. The focus of each case study, like much recent scholarship on ancient graffiti, is to understand these inscriptions in context: landscape, built environment, and in reference to other literary practices. Beyond a focus on understanding these inscriptions in their physical environments, three thematic strands unite these case studies: place making, marginality, and the materiality of ancient graffiti.

Many of the chapters in the volume highlight the ways communities use graffiti to claim, reshape, or even create the built space. Writing graffiti creates community by reinforcing group cohesion among the writers, who return to the same space many times to write or view the graffiti. The dialogic relationship among group members and between the group and the space itself is often represented in the distribution of these writings. Graffiti often cluster because of a community’s use of a space and desire to claim it. This can be seen in Ragazzoli’s opening chapter on the graffiti written around 1500 B.C.E. from the Scribes’ Cave (Deir el-Bahari, Egypt). The clusters started with large graffiti in hieroglyphs at the center of the wall panel, which were then surrounded by signatures in cursive scripts. The graffiti thereby commemorate and reinforce the scribal community that created them. Likewise, the Christian graffiti of the sixth to eighth centuries C.E. in the area of Thebes, Egypt (Delattre, ch. 2), often cluster around religiously or socially significant landmarks like crossroads and sacred places, memorializing the Christian community that used these areas, as well as the individual authors. Turning from ancient examples, Gruber examines modern graffiti of Gezi Park in Turkey (ch. 5). These, which were written in response to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and then Prime Minister Erdoğan, echo the purposes of place making and reinforcing group identity seen in the Egyptian examples from earlier millennia. They lay claim both to this specific area (Gezi Park) and to a role in the political process at large.

Sometimes, however, this clustering happens not as a result of a community’s appropriation of or claim to a space but by an “accident of topography,” as Macdonald puts it (73). Macdonald’s contribution (ch. 4) traces the graffiti written in Safaitic by nomads and in a local dialect of Aramaic by Nabateans, dating from the first century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. In addition to groups near cairns and possible sacrificial areas, Safaitic graffiti cluster near water or good pastures where the nomads traveled. These case studies show both the ways that ancient peoples appropriated the spaces they used by writing graffiti and the ways the spaces themselves altered the epigraphic habit of these peoples. Environmental conditions forced the nomads, for example, to loiter in areas in which they then wrote graffiti. The interdependent relationship between space and graffiti, which these case studies emphasize, is in my view the most important contribution of this volume.

There is significant variation in the degree to which graffiti were welcomed and encouraged by the respective cultures that produced them. At one end of the spectrum, the graffiti of Pompeii (Benefiel, ch. 6) were not meant to deface the structures on which they were inscribed in the years prior to 79 C.E. They were written in inconspicuous, visually unobtrusive ways by a great variety of people—slave, free, male, female. The graffiti from the Central Acropolis of Tikal, 600–800 C.E. (Olton, ch. 7), were also written in discreet areas, but they seem to be aimed instead at undermining the dominant visual ideology and ruling elite. At the other end of the spectrum, the graffiti in the necropolis of Beit Shearim (Tivon, Israel) from the late second to sixth centuries C.E. (Stern, ch. 9), are meant to be visible and conspicuous, yet, unlike the graffiti of Pompeii, they are mostly anonymous. There is a continuum here between conspicuous and clandestine, sanctioned and illicit, named and anonymous, which is highlighted by comparisons between these cultures.

Marginality continues, in a literal way, in the contributions on medieval marginalia (Rogers, ch. 11) and annotations within digital reading platforms (Jahjah, ch. 12). In both cases, these marginalia are expected, and in the case of the digital reading platforms, they are then appropriated by the platform itself.

Many of the chapters also highlight the interaction between textual and pictorial graffiti and the materiality of graffiti as a genre. The necropolis of Beit Shearim contains textual graffiti that were surrounded by human figures and ambiguous shapes, seemingly related to their mortuary context. Likewise, medieval marginalia include riddles, sometimes in the form of visual puns, as well as pictorial graffiti of various kinds. The graffiti of Tikal and the Scribes’ Cave have imagery meant to undermine the ruling authority. Harmanşah’s contribution (ch. 3) examines rock inscriptions from Late Bronze Age Anatolia (14th through 12th centuries B.C.E.) and advocates for understanding these graffiti in light of other corpora, including rock paintings and prehistoric imagery. Rather than associating these inscriptions with state-sponsored monuments of the Hittite Empire, Harmanşah suggests that we should understand these graffiti in the local topography (both physical and cultural).

Navratilova’s contribution (ch. 8), which traces the inscriptions in the royal necropolis in Memphis, brings the materiality and physicality of graffiti into clearer focus. They were primarily painted with ink, which identifies the authors as literate scribes. But the scribes encountered many difficulties in painting on the surfaces within the complexes and had to adapt to these circumstances. The materiality of these graffiti indicates careful planning and coordination, unlike some of the other graffiti in this volume. Finally, Dudbridge’s contribution (ch. 10), on parietal verses in medieval China, examines how these inscriptions were described and transcribed in memoirs and notebooks. Here the physical graffiti have long since perished, only to be recalled and remembered in these later memoirs.

Given that the primary aim of this volume is to examine the cross-cultural practice of graffiti writing, more references between chapters would have emphasized the similarities and differences between the corpora studied. Overall, the production quality of the volume is good. Black-and-white photographs and line drawings supplement most chapters. Photographing inscribed graffiti is difficult, yet the authors have provided clear photographs and line drawings, sometimes both, to elucidate the aesthetics of the inscriptions. This volume highlights the enormous value of using ancient graffiti to understand the ancient environment, social interactions, and, ultimately, the human experience. One cannot help but notice the modern Arabic graffito spray-painted on top of the ancient Nabatean graffiti at Sarmadā (fig. 4.4, 80)—a testament to the powerful draw of making one’s mark that has not changed through the millennia.

Jacqueline DiBiasie-Sammons
Department of Classics
University of Mississippi

Book Review of Scribbling Through History: Graffiti, Places and People from Antiquity to Modernity, edited by Chloé Ragazolli, Ömür Harmansah, Chiara Salvador, and Elizabeth Frood

Reviewed by Jacqueline DiBiasie-Sammons

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 4 (October 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1234.DiBiaseSammons

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