‘Graffiti in Pompeii and Herculaneum give insight into groups marginalized by history books’

No site in the world has been continually excavated for so long as Pompeii, the city that lay buried after being destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted, until its accidental discovery over 1,700 years later.

‘Graffiti in Pompeii and Herculaneum give insight into groups marginalized by history books’
Project Director Rebecca Benefiel uses an iPad to take a photograph of a drawing in Herculaneum. Photo: Ancient Graffiti Project

Not far away lies Herculaneum; buried in the same eruption, it is less well known among tourists but just as much of a treasure trove for archaeologists and historians. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, the cities are well preserved. The eruption may have wiped out their inhabitants, but it also ensured that they were kept alive in historical memory, thanks to the metres of ash that shielded the ruins and remains from the elements. Historians have therefore had access to details which in other cities they can only guess at.

This is particularly true in Herculaneum, which was buried by volcanic ash from the ground up rather than being buried from above like Pompeii, leaving many of the buildings' upper stories in tact.

Just as crucial was the immediacy of the eruption. Where cities decay naturally, remains tend to bear witness only to the wealthiest; emperors or dignitaries who could afford palaces and ornate tombs, or warriors and merchants significant enough to be written into the historical record.

But the ash didn’t discriminate. In Pompeii and Herculaneum, archaeologists have found evidence of the people and parts of life which written records may have either dismissed as insignificant or ignored to suit the writer’s agenda.

Some of the most fascinating insights into Roman life have come from a surprising source: the Ancient Roman graffiti left on walls around the city.

“The people who left graffiti were not the elite, famous Romans we read today; they were everyday people who were living normal lives before disaster struck,” says Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons, a field archaeologist who studies and documents the inscriptions for the Ancient Graffiti Project. The project has prioritized applying new digital technologies to ancient graffiti in order to discover the best techniques for recording these inscriptions, such as computational photography.

Field Director Jacqueline DiBiasie-Sammons (right) and team members Mary Beth Smith (center) and Brittany Hardy (left) use Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), a type of computational photography, to record graffiti in the site. Photo: Ancient Graffiti Project

The scrawls have helped reveal what certain buildings were used for and how ancient Romans spent their free time, shedding light on love, rivalries, and gladiator fights from a rarely seen perspective.

The graffiti is also of huge interest to linguists, providing a record of vulgar Latin; the language as it was used by ordinary people. And the writings show that some things never change.

“Phallic imagery was very popular,” says DiBiasie Sammons.

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Vulgarity is common in the writing on the walls, from Latin insults to sexual messages – though while some of the phallic inscriptions fall into this genre, Romans viewed the symbol as a sign of good luck, so it would be inscribed into walls of homes and public buildings out of superstition too.

In a time before social media – or even much available paper – the walls were an easy way to communicate. While today’s baby boomers criticize youngsters for documenting the minutia of their lives on Facebook, it turns out the Romans were more or less doing the same thing.

“The most popular kinds of graffiti are ‘I was here’ messages, single names, and greetings like ‘Marcus says hello to Fortunata’,” explains DiBiasie Sammons.

A drawing of a bird in Pompeii's baths. Photo: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons

Nor were the Romans above the occasional over-share or humblebrag. In a Herculaneum latrine, one inscription declares: 'Apollinaris, doctor of the emperor Titus, defecated here well.'

Another, left by two brothers in the baths, says: 'Two companions were here and because they continuously had bad service in every way from Epaphroditus, they threw him out with no delay. They spent 105 1⁄2 sesterces [an Ancient Roman coin] most pleasantly while they made love.'

But the writings also served a practical use, different to today's graffiti which is generally viewed as either vandalism or art. Thousands of inscriptions were made at the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and they were not scratched out or covered over to hide them, suggesting it was a commonly used and socially acceptable method of communication.

“Graffiti appear in virtually every type of space in the cities: houses, public buildings, temples, and even tombs. The Romans clearly had different ideas about public versus private property than we do,” explains DiBiasie Sammons.

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Numerals and dates were a common type of graffiti, keeping track of economic transactions or recording important events.

And the language used was often grammatically complex or intricate, from lengthy prayers and poems to alphabets (in both Greek and Latin), riddles, and examples of wordplay which show graffiti was a means of education.

Then there are the pictures. In addition to the aforementioned phalluses, DiBiasie Sammons says gladiators are a common motif, demonstrating that this was the main form of entertainment at the time. In some cases, these drawings are accompanied with the fighter’s name, and tallies of their fights and victories.

Geometric shapes such as compass circles were also popular, as were animals, such as this rooster and the horse below.

A graffiti drawing of a horse in Pompeii. Photo: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons

Early excavators recorded the graffiti they found when first uncovering the towns, which has been crucial to historians. Only a small number of the writings they recorded can still be seen today, and these require special training to hunt down.

Romans scratched their messages into walls with metal tools and they can be hard to find – as Field Director, DiBiasie Sammons helps train archaeologists in how to find the scribbles using a flashlight, and how to interpret them.

But although these towns offer a breadth of information compared to other sites, there are some mysteries researchers have still been unable to solve.

“One particular inscription that has stumped scholars since it was discovered is one thought to be a grammatical exercise,” says DiBiasie Sammons. “ It contains groups of letters in columns, but the columns cannot be put together to make any logical sense.”

Participants and team members of the Ancient Graffiti Project 2016 field season. Photo: Ancient Graffiti Project

In other cases, the writings have been a valuable perspective alongside the literary record, leading historians to revise their understanding of the era. This is particularly apparent when it comes to marginalized groups such as women and slaves.

“Graffiti indicate that a much greater proportion of women was literate than has often been assumed,” says DiBiasie Sammons. “One of my favorite graffiti from Pompeii (near the Theater) says: “Methe, slave of Cominia, from Atella loves Chrestus. May Pompeian Venus be good to them both and may they always live in harmony.”

“This provides evidence of a literate woman who was also a slave. She used complex grammar to express this very sweet and touching message.”

The archaeologist is currently working on a project about a man who left several graffiti in Pompeii, and went by the name of Crescens.

“Crescens was a fuller, an ancient dry-cleaner, which is an occupation we would not expect to have a high degree of literacy. He wrote dozens of graffiti, many of them salutations to his fellow fullers. One example says: “Crescens says hello to the fullers here and everywhere.”

In addition to her fieldwork, DiBiasie Sammons also works on the Ancient Graffiti Project, led by Project Director Rebecca Benefiel, digitizing the ancient inscriptions from Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are all added to an online search engine where users can look for writings by location, filters, and tags.

The aim of the project is to make these writings accessible to anyone who is interested, so that more people can learn about everyday life before the eruption, and get a rare glimpse inside the heads of Ancient Romans.

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Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

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“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

READ ALSO: Four civilizations in Italy that pre-date the Roman Empire

Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

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The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.