Friday, February 22, 2019


Chloe Ragazzoli, Ömür Harmanşah, Chiara Salvador, Elizabeth Frood (ed.), Scribbling through History: Graffiti, Places and People from Antiquity to Modernity. London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. 244. ISBN 9781474288811. £73.44.

Reviewed by Nikolaos Lazaridis, California State University, Sacramento (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is a collection of essays primarily by scholars who participated in a three-day workshop that Chloe Ragazzoli organized in Oxford in 2013 (Workshop website). The essays revisit core questions about graffiti (such as graffiti's relationship with time and space) by using case studies from various fieldwork projects.

In the general introduction, the editors point out that our current definition of "graffiti" has gone a long way from its original narrow meaning that was based mainly on the corpus of Pompeian graffiti. However, there are still some lingering, inaccurate conceptions about graffiti: for example, because of the misconception that (especially figural) graffiti occupy the marginal, low registers of a literate culture and are poor relatives of official inscriptions, epigraphers in the 18th and 19th centuries avoided recording and publishing graffiti.

The first section of this volume, which is dedicated to graffiti's dynamic relationship with the landscape, begins with Chloe Ragazzoli embarking on a study of the 18th-dynasty graffiti at the so-called "Scribes' Cave" (a site that is famous for two erotic graffiti) above the tomb of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari. She uses the corpus of more than 70 examples of votive and other graffiti inked on the smoothed walls of this man-made chamber to illustrate how ancient Egyptian graffiti often formed an "epigraphic cluster", creating a social space for dialogue, self-presentation, and shared identity. In this particular case, the self-conscious group exploiting this social space consisted of scribes and staff members of the Temple of Hatshepsut, and their group consciousness manifested itself in some of these graffiti where multiple authors signed their names and referred to each other as "friends" or "brothers/colleagues". In the process of creating this social space, these graffiti transformed the previously unused surfaces into monumental spaces with their own decorum rules and conventions.1

Continuing with Egyptian graffiti, Alain Delattre presents in the next article three examples from his ongoing work on Christian graffiti from the Theban region, making two intriguing points: (a) the decision to scratch such graffiti was made not only to share information about a single event (such as someone's visit) or the author's presence, but also to show off the author's writing skills (and I would add, also the author's status within the world of travelers and pilgrims); and (b) the occasional decision to scratch cryptographic graffiti could be considered an intellectual exercise, joke, or display of restricted knowledge, rather than a conscious attempt to hide a message. 2

In the third article of this section, Ömür Harmanşah sustains an important argument that he has made in earlier publications (see p. 61 for an example): several scholars have rushed to include Late Bronze Age Anatolian rock inscriptions and reliefs in the corpus of imperial Hittite propaganda texts without taking into consideration the micro-associations of such epigraphic materials with their immediate context's earlier local traditions. In order to illustrate the validity of this argument, Harmanşah adduces rock graffiti at the Suratkaya shelter, located at the south-eastern edge of Latmos Mountain's area. He considers the recently discovered hieroglyphic Luwian graffiti there in relation to the long-lasting, local practice of venerating this mountain. One of the most significant points the author makes is that by contrast to the epigraphers' default approach to graffiti as materials of secondary status, one should also consider the possibility in monumentalized natural sites that graffiti were partially (if not wholly) responsible for those sites' process of monumentalization.

Next, Michael Macdonald's article on graffiti from 1st–4th century CE Syria and Arabia explores differences between graffiti made by nomads in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia who used the Safaitic script (and whom the author considers members of a "non-literate" society in which institutions functioned orally, although individual members knew how to read and write) and graffiti made by settled Nabateans who have been schooled to read and write in Aramaic. The author argues that the nomads' graffiti were in their majority products of pastime and self-expression, with little care for communicating with a specific audience,3 or for participating in an interactive cluster. However, there were also a few examples of pastime, funerary, or even religious clusters — the latter type was an interesting practice that was connected to these nomads' habit of leaving their graffiti around the cairns that marked someone's burial spot. By contrast, Nabatean graffiti were more connected to monumental sites, such as tombs or temples, or non-monumental sites of established public significance, such as sacred places or popular travel routes, where they formed clusters and interacted with each other.

In the last article of this section, Christiane Gruber discusses political uses of graffiti in modern Turkey. The author focuses on the corpus of graffiti produced by the members of the "Occupy Gezi Movement", who in 2013 opposed the Turkish government's decision to destroy the Gezi park in central Istanbul and who essentially represented numerous groups who have been disenfranchised by policies under Erdoğan. Within this context, such graffiti, implementing their strategy of "urban sabotage", were intended to voice dissent, reclaim public spaces, and (re)empower their marginalized authors. As the author puts it, "daring sloganeering thus formed a key component of Gezi's oral performances, texts and images as these interacted with urban landscapes that were, quite literally, 'up for grabs'" (85).

Moving on to the volume's second section on monumental wall graffiti, Rebecca Benefiel's article brings in the famous and well-studied corpus of graffiti from Pompeii. Although Pompeian graffiti tended to be discreet and respect wall decoration as well as other graffiti's space, they were inked in every type of public and private space. By using examples from graffiti that included references to gladiators, greetings, and poetry, Benefiel illustrates effectively how these graffiti participated in oral social exchange, a large-scale conversation that encompassed all members of Pompeian society.

As opposed to Pompeian graffiti that were oriented towards everyday life, the ancient Mayan graffiti that were incised on stucco walls of monuments in the city of Tikal conveyed elite members' dissenting views over official authority. Elizabeth Olton's article focuses on figural graffiti of the regional Ruler and Protector motif in Room 9 of Maler's Palace and argues that in addition to earlier scholarly interpretations of such graffiti either as markers of historical events or as products of mindless doodling, one may also consider them as responses to the formal aesthetic canons. They reinterpreted, or even satirized, canonical motifs by modifying the scale, movements, and expressions of the depicted figures, through which their makers attested to, and commented upon, the underlying inconsistencies of Mayan politics. Significantly, such subversive graffiti were incised only on interior walls, thus targeting a specific private audience.

Returning to public graffiti, in the next article Hana Navrátilová summarizes some results from her ongoing work on visitors' graffiti from ancient Egyptian monuments in the necropolis of Memphis. This type of graffiti is an important source for information about such monuments' reception, use, and appropriation by later (up to 900 years after a monument's construction) generations of ancient Egyptians. The visiting graffiti makers, who identified themselves primarily as scribes and literate men, strolled around major parts of such monuments, carefully planning their graffiti through which they displayed knowledge about the monuments' reputation, owners, and cultic foci.

In the next article, Karen Stern explores Jewish graffiti (that is, markings that included at least one reference to Jewish culture) in ancient funerary sites, arguing that such graffiti-acts enabled their Jewish makers to commemorate their dead and to reuse existing monuments. Using examples from the necropolis of Beit Shearim, outside the modern city of Tivon, the author briefly discusses isolated, as well as clusters of, graffiti usually located around entrance areas (like the Egyptian visitors' graffiti in the previous article. She argues, among other things, that the actual location of these graffiti can be correlated to their intended (living or dead) audiences, and that by leaving their mark, visitors participated in a monument's continuous use.

The final section of this volume interestingly relates graffiti to textual marginalia and annotations, considering them all as comparable specimens of "secondary epigraphy". Starting with Glen Dudbridge's article on circulating medieval Chinese verses by inking them on walls, the author observes how graffiti of this sort attested to the mobilization of the Chinese educated elite, who, while traveling in foreign places, invited their peers to participate in a dialogue through poetic verses. The irony was that these spontaneous verses were immortalized (and eventually became parts of canonical literature) not by being "deposited" on a wall, as was the case with other examples of monumental graffiti in this volume, but by later being copied on paper, thereby allowing them to escape the deliberate whitewashing of walls bearing traces of graffiti.

Continuing with the idea of graffiti-like marginal texts on paper, Janine Rogers offers a short discussion of medieval manuscript marginalia and their relationship with monumental graffiti. The acknowledgement of such a relationship is not new in Medieval Studies and is associated with the idea that book-space is always public and may contain multi-authored messages. Like graffiti, manuscript marginalia could be textual and/or pictorial and could playfully invite their audience to decode them in light of their location and in response to the already existing physical or textual "monument".

In the last article, Marc Jahjah ushers graffiti making into the modern world of social media. By highlighting the function of graffiti as a forum for open-ended dialogue, the author argues that this type of annotation is most welcomed in the digital world, hailed as a means of freedom, as well as a potential resource for information. In the same way ancient travelers expected to find graffiti marking well-trodden paths, inhabitants of the digital world anticipate graffiti and marginalia, encourage them by providing annotation software, and mine their valuable information.

Overall, this volume actualizes a unique meeting of different corpora of graffiti, treating graffiti making as a "practice" that is well-embedded in its immediate physical and sociocultural context. I believe that the volume would have benefited by a more consistent strategy toward differentiating graffiti from inscriptions, or from other kindred terms, since some of the authors use such terms interchangeably, confusing the reader (see e.g. Harmanşah's usage of "graffiti" and "inscriptions" throughout chapter 3). Also, one may note that the term "secondary epigraphy", which is employed by several authors of this volume, seems counter-productive, as it works against the overall efforts of this volume's authors to stress the fact that the recording and study of graffiti is equally important to that of official texts and imagery.

Authors and titles

Preface (C. Ragazzoli)
Introduction (C. Ragazzoli, Ö. Harmanşah, C. Salvador)
Part 1: Graffiti and the Landscape (with an introduction by Ö. Harmanşah)
Chapter 1: The Scribes' Cave: Graffiti and the Production of Social Space in Ancient Egypt circa
1500 BC (C. Ragazzoli)
Chapter 2: Christian Graffiti in Egypt: Case Studies on the Theban Mountain (A. Delattre)
Chapter 3: Graffiti or Monument? Inscription of Place at Anatolian Rock Reliefs (Ö. Harmanşah)
Chapter 4: Tweets from Antiquity: Literacy, Graffiti, and Their Uses in the Towns and Deserts of Ancient Arabia (M. Macdonald)
Chapter 5: Gezi Graffiti: Shout-outs to Resistance and Rebellion in Contemporary Turkey (C. Gruber)
Part 2: Graffiti and the Wall (with an introduction by C. Salvador)
Chapter 6: Gladiators, Greetings, and Poetry: Graffiti in First Century Pompeii (R. Benefiel)
Chapter 7: A New Look at Maya Graffiti from Tikal (E. Olton)
Chapter 8: Visitors' Inscriptions in the Memphite Pyramid Complexes of Ancient Egypt (c. 1543–1292 BC) (H. Navratilova)
Chapter 9: Carving Lines and Shaping Monuments: Mortuary Graffiti and Jews in the Ancient Mediterranean (K. Stern)
Part 3: Graffiti and the Written Page (with an introduction by C. Ragazzoli)
Chapter 10: Verses on Walls in Medieval China (G. Dudbridge)
Chapter 11: Graffiti and the Medieval Margin (J. Rogers)
Chapter 12: Graffiti under Control: Annotation Practices in Social Book Platforms (M. Jahjah)


1.   Interestingly, as Ragazzoli sketches out the defining features of the four categories of Egyptian graffito (pp. 24–26), she states that specimens belonging to the category of "exploration and desert graffiti" abided by the rules of decorum as famously defined by John Baines. I do not, however, believe this is completely accurate: instead, I am inclined to think that when the authors of such graffiti knew about the formal rules of monumental decorum, they responded to them either by imitating them or by deviating from them (cf. N. Lazaridis, "Desert deviations: Massaging standard writing conventions in North Kharga's ancient graffiti", in: Proceedings of the Ninth International Conference of the Dakhleh Oasis Project, forthcoming).
2.   I believe that Delattre's assumption that cryptography was unpopular, or even socially unacceptable, based on the fact that a certain Jacob scratched on the way to Deir el-Bahari a non-cryptographic "explanation" to his earlier cryptographic message is a little far-fetched. One could also interpret this unique presence of a graffito decoding part of the message of an earlier cryptographic graffito as a result of an intellectual exercise: someone else passed by and found the time to sit and solve the riddle of Jacob's cryptographic graffito.
3.   In the case of the Safaitic graffiti that included some sort of appeal to a divine being for safety, the audience was more defined, and thus brings up the question whether the author had to modify his graffito's form and style in order to be understood and to appear more attractive for the divine audience he had in mind.

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