7 Entertaining Examples of Ancient Graffiti

Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Graffiti of gladiators from Pompeii at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Darren Puttock, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Graffiti from centuries and even millennia ago can reveal the grievances, passions, games, and ordinary business dealings of regular people from the long-lost past. Pompeii might be the most famous spot to find such scrawls, but it’s not the only place where bygone messages have been found. Here are seven examples of graffiti from the ancient world.

1. “I VISITED AND I DID NOT LIKE ANYTHING EXCEPT THE SARCOPHAGUS!”

A Chinese teen visiting Egypt prompted outrage when he wrote his name on the wall of the 3500-year-old Luxor Temple in 2013. But he was hardly the first traveler to commit such an offense—there’s a long tradition of leaving “I was here” graffiti while visiting Egyptian ruins. One team of researchers recently counted over 1000 inscriptions inside the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI in the Valley of the Kings—many of which were from Romans who visited the site 2000 years ago. Their ancient declarations include familiar complaints of disappointed tourists: “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” and "I cannot read the hieroglyphs!"

2.“YOU LOVE IRIS, BUT SHE DOES NOT LOVE YOU.”

Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Graffiti in a Pompeii pub
Plaàtarte, Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Pompeii has dominated the study of ancient graffiti, and for good reason. There are many inscriptions and painted messages that survive on the walls of this Roman city in southern Italy, which was famously buried in volcanic ash in 79 CE. And these examples often offer rich insight into the lives of the city’s residents. Behold the drama of a love triangle, apparently played out on the wall of a bar (not the one above) in taunting messages between two men named Severus and Successus:

“Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival wrote this. Goodbye.”

(Reply by Successus) “Envious one, why do you get in the way. Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly and good looking.”

(Reply by Severus) “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

3. “NIKASITIMOS WAS HERE MOUNTING TIMIONA."

Declarations of love and boasts of sexual conquest are not just the domain of modern bathroom-wall graffiti. Plenty of examples of such messages can be found in the ancient world. Erotic graffiti recently identified at the Greek island of Astypalaia documents a 2500-year-old tryst between two men: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona." The general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society, Angelos Matthaiou, told The Guardian: "Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing. The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too."

4. A MENAGERIE OF WILD ANIMALS

A winged lion at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra
A winged lion graffito at the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra

Crocodiles, elephants, rhinoceroses, baboons, and dogs are among the wild animals inscribed on the blocks of a labyrinth-like complex known as the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra. This monument, in modern-day Sudan, was part of the Kingdom of Kush when the drawings were made more than 2000 years ago. Some of the animals also include religious iconography, such as a lion with wings and crown said to represent the deity Apedemak. Archaeologists don't know the function of many of the rooms in the complex, but some have used the graffiti to support their theories about the purposes of different sections. They've proposed interpretations ranging from animal trading stations and elephant training grounds to a holding pen for prey that could be “hunted” by royals who needed to prove their abilities.

5. THE “DRUNKS OF MENKAURE” VS. THE “FRIENDS OF KHUFU GANG.”

The tens of thousands of laborers who built the pyramids in Egypt were divided into gangs of workers—and they took credit for their efforts. Archaeologists who study the pyramids have found inscriptions such as “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of Khufu Gang” (Menkaure and Khufu being pyramid-building Egyptian kings) on bricks at the monuments of Giza. On some monuments, there's graffiti from one gang on one side of the monument, and graffiti from what archeologists think is a competing gang on the other.

6. A WORD SQUARE

A Sator word square in France
A Sator Square in France

In 2003, archaeologists discovered a new cache of graffiti written on the plaster walls of the basement of the Roman basilica at Smyrna, an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey. Scribbled sometime after an earthquake in 177 CE, the inscriptions include the earliest known example of a word square in Greek, made up of five, five-letter words that can be read the same way either horizontally and vertically, like a 2D palindrome. (The meanings of the words aren't quite clear.) A better-known Latin version of this puzzle is called a Sator Square, as pictured above:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

The five words can be read from the right, left, top, and bottom. While their meaning has been debated, they may relate to a farmer named Arepo who is using wheels (rotas).

7. “MY HAND WILL WEAR OUT BUT THE INSCRIPTION WILL REMAIN.”

Though the vast majority of graffiti has surely disappeared over time, some graffiti-writers hoped their markings might outlast them. Take, for example, this Ancient North Arabian piece of graffiti at Palmyra in modern-day Syria, which was written well over a thousand years ago: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand. My hand will wear out but the inscription will remain.”

8 Giant Historical Objects That Have Crossed the World

The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
The giant sphinx at the Penn Museum
Peter Miller, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Despite the incredible labor that goes into their relocation, a number of colossal artifacts have made very long trips after being purchased—or, occasionally, stolen. Here are a few journeys of such enormous objects, from a whole 19th-century bridge to the ancient god of a lost city.

1. AN EGYPTIAN SPHINX

In October 1913, a nearly 15-ton, 3000-year-old sphinx arrived with great fanfare in Philadelphia. From Memphis, Egypt, it had traveled up the Suez Canal, then boarded a German freighter, packed alongside goat skins that were destined for a local leather tannery. Once docked in the United States, a crane hoisted the red granite statue onto a train car. Finally, with the help of an iron-wheeled truck, 10 horses, and 50 workers, it was installed outside the Penn Museum. It was moved inside the galleries in 1926, and it's guarded the collections ever since (although it's currently off-view for conservation work).

2. A STATUE OF JUNO

For a nearly 13-foot-tall, 13,000-pound Roman goddess, Juno has gotten around. With a head sculpted in the 1st or 2nd century CE and a body made a century or two later, the statue's first recorded whereabouts are in the gardens of Rome's Villa Ludovisi. She was sold to Americans Charles and Mary Sprague in 1897, then transported in 1904 to their home in Brookline, Massachusetts. There the marble woman, decked out in flowing robes and with a diadem on her giant head, presided over the driveway of their Brandegee Estate. It reportedly took 12 oxen to haul her into place.

After a century in the open air, Juno was acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011. Getting the statue inside the museum required lifting it by crane and lowering it 80 feet through a skylight. Unfortunately, all those years of exposure in the outdoors had deteriorated her porous marble, with cracks and vandalism further marring the stone, so extensive conservation was carried out right in the gallery (including a nose and lip replacement). Now she’s standing proudly on a steel-reinforced pedestal as the largest classical marble statue in an American museum.

3. LONDON BRIDGE

Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968
Robert McCaulloch standing in front of London Bridge as it is dismantled in 1968.
Jim Gray/Keystone/Getty Images

Block by block, this 19th-century bridge was relocated to a brand new 20th-century American development. Industrialist Robert P. McCulloch bought the 1830s London Bridge from the Corporation of London on April 18, 1968 for close to $2.5 million. The arch bridge—a project of Scottish civil engineer John Rennie completed by his sons, John Rennie the Younger and George—had spanned the River Thames, but was unable to support modern traffic and needed to be replaced. McCulloch had its carefully numbered granite blocks reconstructed over a reinforced concrete structure in Lake Havasu City, a planned community he established in the Arizona desert. (He thought the historic structure would drive tourism and encourage home buyers to invest.) It opened in 1971, connecting a Colorado River island with Lake Havasu City. His plan seems to have worked: Today the town is thriving, and the bridge still draws plenty of tourists.

4. AN IMPERIAL COFFIN

In 2010, an imperial coffin dating to the Tang Dynasty was repatriated to China from the United States. It had gone missing in 2006, stolen right from the tomb of empress Wu Huifei—a staggering feat, since it weighs 27 tons and stretches 13 feet long by 6.5 feet high. After two years of investigations, the local police discovered that the tomb—carved with animals, flowers, and human figures—had been sold to a businessman for $1 million and had traveled all the way to the United States. Once confronted by police via mediators, the businessman agreed to return the item, which then went on display at the Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an. The incident is a reminder of the ongoing looting of Chinese antiquities from archaeological sites, which experts say is growing increasingly bold.

5. GOD OF A LOST CITY

For 1000 years, Hapy, the god of fertility, was submerged off the Egyptian coast. Then, in the early 2000s, a team of divers discovered a fragment of the colossal 4th-century BCE red granite statue. Weighing 6 tons and standing over 17 feet tall, Hapy is now one of more than 200 objects touring in "Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds." From small coins and lamps to an over-12,000-pound sculpture of a king, each is a relic of the drowned city of Thonis-Heracleion. The major Egyptian port was founded around the 7th century BCE, and likely abandoned due to rising sea levels and earthquakes. Hapy is among the most massive of the exhibition’s artifacts, which have toured London, Paris, Zurich, and Saint Louis—with a visit to Minneapolis on the horizon this fall.

6. PIECES OF THE BERLIN WALL

A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
A piece of the Berlin wall in the Vatican gardens in 2014
VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, remnants of the monumental barrier scattered throughout the world. Concrete pieces of the structure stand at almost 100 sites, ranging from a men's bathroom in a Las Vegas casino to the Vatican Gardens in Vatican City. A 12-foot-tall section, gifted to Olympian Usain Bolt, is at Up-Park Camp in Kingston, Jamaica, while a dentist in Sosnovka, Poland, acquired 40 segments and arranged them as an art installation. However, the longest stretch is still in Berlin—the East Side Gallery—adorned with nearly a mile of street art, a shadow of the wall’s former 96-mile path.

7. IRAQ TRAUMA BAY FLOOR

A 3000-pound, 7-by-7-foot section of concrete floor is considered the site where the most American lives were both lost and saved during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2008, the floor of Trauma Bay II was delicately relocated from Balad Air Base in Iraq to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Springs, Maryland. The scuffed floor, stained with antiseptics, was salvaged when the temporary medical facilities were torn down. Now part of an exhibition on medical personnel in Iraq, the concrete slab recalls the trauma care for the many wounded who were treated on it between 2003 and 2007.

8. CLEOPATRA’S NEEDLES

Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
Cleopatra's Needle in New York's Central Park
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

The oldest human-made outdoor object in New York City was carved when Manhattan was still wilderness. The 69-foot, 220-ton obelisk, nicknamed Cleopatra’s Needle (though it has no connection to Cleopatra), is located in Central Park just behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its companion obelisk is by the River Thames in London; both were commissioned around 1450 BCE by Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III for the Heliopolis sun temple. In 12 BCE, they were moved over 100 miles to Alexandria by order of Augustus Caesar, and erected at the Caesareum.

When one was gifted to England, and the other to the United States, in the 19th century, they were lugged aboard ships for sea voyages. The London obelisk was almost lost in a storm that claimed six lives, but the New York obelisk was less disastrous, if no less arduous: It took 32 horses, several months, and a special rail track to get it into place. Following an October 2, 1880 Masonic ceremony, during which a cornerstone was placed in the obelisk, it was officially dedicated on February 22, 1881.

Sequoyah: The Man Who Saved the Cherokee Language

Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Henry Inman, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Sequoyah was fascinated by books and letters, enchanted by the way people could divine meaning from ink-stained scribbles on a written page. Born in the 1760s in what is now Tennessee and trained as a silversmith and blacksmith, the Cherokee man never learned how to read or write in English, but he always knew that literacy and power were intertwined.

During most of Sequoyah's lifetime, the Cherokee language was entirely oral. According to the Manataka American Indian Council, a written language may have existed centuries earlier, but the script was supposedly lost as the tribe journeyed east across the continent. Sometime around 1809, Sequoyah began working on a new system to put the Cherokee language back on the page. He believed that, by inventing an alphabet, the Cherokee could share and save the stories that made their way of life unique.

At first, some Cherokee disliked Sequoyah’s idea. White people were encroaching further on their land and culture, and they were resistant to anything that resembled assimilation. Some skeptics saw Sequoyah’s attempts to create a written language as just another example of the tribe becoming more like the oncoming white settlers—in other words, another example of the tribe losing a grip on its culture and autonomy.

Sequoyah, however, saw it differently: Rather than destroy his culture, he saw the written word as a way to save it. According to Britannica, he became convinced that the secret of white people's growing power was directly tied to their use of written language, which he believed was far more effective than collective memories or word-of-mouth. In the words of Sequoyah, "The white man is no magician." If they could do it, so could he.

Sequoyah became further convinced of this in 1813, after he helped the U.S Army fight the Creek War in Georgia. For months, he watched soldiers send letters to their families and saw war officers deliver important commands in written form. He found the capability to communicate across space and time profoundly important.

Sequoyah's first attempt to develop a written language, however, was relatively crude by comparison. He tried to invent a logographic system, designing a unique character for every word, but quickly realized he was creating too much unnecessary work for himself. (According to historian April Summit's book, Sequoyah and the Invention of the Cherokee Alphabet, his wife may have attempted to burn an early version of his alphabet, calling it witchcraft.) So Sequoyah started anew, this time constructing his language from letters he found in the Latin, Greek, and Cyrillic alphabets, as well as with some Arabic numerals.

Sequoyah became more reclusive and obsessive, spending hour upon hour working on his alphabet. According to the official website of the Cherokee Nation, people outside his family began whispering that he was meddling with sorcery. By 1821, Sequoyah was too busy to pay the gossip any mind: He was teaching his six-year-old daughter, Ayokeh, how to use the system.

As one story goes, Sequoyah was eventually charged with witchcraft and brought to trial before a town chief, who tested Sequoyah’s claims by separating him and his daughter and asking them to communicate through their so-called writing system. By the trial’s end, everybody involved was convinced that Sequoyah was telling the truth—the symbols truly were a distillation of Cherokee speech. Rather than punish Sequoyah, the officials asked him a question: Can you teach us how to read?

Once accepted by the Cherokee, Sequoyah’s 86 character alphabet—which is technically called a syllabary—was widely studied. Within just a few years, thousands of people would learn how to read and write, with many Cherokee communities becoming more literate than the surrounding white populations. It wasn’t long before the Cherokee language began appearing in books and newspapers: First published in 1828, The Cherokee Phoenix was the first Native American newspaper printed in the United States.

Sam Houston, the eventual governor of Texas, admired Sequoyah's achievement and reportedly told him, “Your invention of the alphabet is worth more to your people than two bags full of gold in the hands of every Cherokee." Today, while the Cherokee language is now considered endangered by UNESCO, Sequoyah's system remains a landmark innovation—and a source of hope for the future.

You can visit Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin, which still stands in Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Not only listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it has also been designated a Literary Landmark.

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