Aegeus Society For Aegean Prehistory


20 April 2013

Graffiti as source for the study of historical and social conditions

Archaeology & Arts, 19-04-2013

As “primitive” as mankind, as ancient as writing, competitive, full with comments of sexual discrimination and nature in general -almost “porn”-, graffiti are not only a modern phenomenon. On the contrary, they have a history of 3.000 years behind them, as much as writing itself.

The earliest sample of graffiti, bearing a long text in Greek dates from the end of the 8th century BC. It was found in a tomb in Pithicoussae -the gulf of Naples, Italy- and it is known as the text on “the Nestor cup”. On this vessel (imported to Italy from a Rhodian workshop), there is an incised inscription recording an epigram according to which, in a free translation, “Once, Nestor had a similar vessel/but whoever drinks from it, he will be conquered by Aphrodite and her passion”. Nestor (the deceased in the grave where the vessel was found) was only 15 and he seems to have taken part in the era’s extremely erotic symposia-odes to Aphrodite and Dionysus.

“Imprints of ancient voices and feelings on stone”. This is how ancient graffiti are characterized by Angelos Chaniotis, a Greek professor of Ancient History at Princeton’ s Institute for Advanced Study. Being -in their majority- products of the moment, creations of the night and composed by people in the condition of stimulation, intoxication or merriness, graffiti are hard to interpret but invaluable as historical sources. As for their content, this is full of sexual discrimination, innuendos, competitive or offensive comments, as their composers are declaring their sexual preferences, they are imposing their ideas or they are just showing off…

The Greek professor has recorded and studied more than 4.000 graffiti, in the framework of New York University’s excavation of ancient Asia Minor city of Aphrodisias/Sevastoupolis, near Smyrna, in modern day Turkey. In Aphrodisias, known in antiquity for its marble and sculpture style, Prof. Chaniotis located thousands of graffiti incised or carved on marble. Theie content and quality vary from patterns for board games to prayers, religious symbols, names but also offensive comments and obscene images  created as means to offend the defeated opponent during games.

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