Claire Taylor, Graffiti or Inscriptions

(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, March 11th, 2010. Brief report by Caroline Barron.)

Graffiti or Inscriptions? The Epigraphic Habit in Attica
Claire Taylor

Dr Taylor’s talk focussed on the problems that arise through the categorisation of some inscriptions as Graffiti. She suggested that by making such a stark categorisation, some ‘marks’ have not received the attention that that might deserve, and that, therefore, their full potential as not been realised. These categories also encourage us to view the texts in a certain way. In the modern world, graffiti is often considered part of an illicit subculture, with a common critical response. By referring to these marks and texts as graffiti, we are therefore imposing the judgement that they too are illicit, as well as unconsciously (or consciously?) comparing them less favourably with other epigraphic forms. This is further complicated by the variety of texts and marks that are called graffiti: Individual Letters, Names, Trademarks, Commercial notations, Dedications, Sexual references and pictures. Dr Taylor argued that each mark must be considered in terms of the context in which it appeared eg. A commercial notation on is an important communication for both the buyer and the seller. That it was added to the pot later on, and by a different hand, shouldn’t become more important than the trade information that it relates. Equally, the sexual graffiti found in Pompeii is entirely appropriate for the place in which it was found – a brothel. So, while there is very little that connects the Greek pot’s commercial notation and Pompeii’s sexual graffiti, they are both found in the same category of Graffiti.

Dr Taylor suggested that a micro approach to these marks would be more appropriate; one that considered in detail the geographical, spatial, temporal and cultural context of each mark. This context could then also be considered in terms of the wider epigraphic habit. A collection of marks from in Attica, which largely date to the Classical period, were chosen to illustrate this micro approach. The marks, carved into the bedrock of Attica, vary greatly, from boundary stones and single words or names, to pictures of Hoplites, phalloi and footprints. These marks appear in two precise sites: Thorokos, and the Hymetos foothills. Both are in the remote countryside, and both show epigraphic evidence different from many other Attic sites. Dr Taylor suggested that these marks were made to represent a link between the inscriber and their location. The footprints and phalloi could, therefore, be seen as physical representations of those who made the marks – a memorial of a particular person in that particular space, at a particular time and within a certain community. The same can be said for the καλός names that frequently appear, with their representation of an emotional link between people.

These marks appear in small clusters, and have clearly been made at different times; one cluster showed a καλός name, with a footprint placed over it later on. Dr Taylor suggested that this temporal layering might show the different generations of visitors to the place, who have added their own names, thereby situating themselves within the group, and within the community as a whole.

Such ‘community’ based clusters are not uncommon in the Greek World, but they are more usually found in gymnasia or other centres of urban gathering. That the communities referred to by Dr Taylor are found in a rural context should, she argued, give us some idea as to what kind of people might form them. Dr Taylor believes that there is good case for these marks having been made by quarry workers, and show the communication of a non-elite group with each other in a non-dedicatory capacity. If this were to be true, then the long-held belief that graffiti were made illicitly, by those with little to do, could be overthrown. These marks would represent the voice of a normally silent people, who in fact appear to have communicated regularly with each other, and within a certain set of cultural traditions. They are shown to be at least semi-literate, and to have been motivated by concerns similar to those that are represented in more formal inscriptions. Those were not literate were not held back from communicating with each other either – the pictorial reliefs and consistency of symbols such as the phalloi and footprints reveal a cultural tradition that was not unique to a particular group or time, but that was repeated by successive members of the community.

The graffiti discussed in this talk proved the value of seemingly random markings to both Greek historians and Epigraphers, and for a wider understanding of the epigraphic habit.

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