When archaeologist John Schofield compared contemporary graffiti to prehistoric cave art, there was uproar. But what is the difference? Both are forms of expression by people writing or creating art on a public surface. The only real difference is time.
So when Banksy’s artwork hit the headlines again this week, we decided to revisit the question. Here are our top five archaeological graffiti sites:
1. Profanities in Pompeii
The tradition of graffiti goes back at least to ancient Greece and Rome, where the walls were so full of political slogans and profane sayings it prompted one person to scrawl “Wall, I am amazed that you haven’t fallen in ruins considering the weight of your disgusting inscriptions.” You can find out more at the Ancient Graffiti Project.
2. Medieval graffiti
Stained glass windows, alabaster tombs, monumental brasses – usually everything you see in a medieval church relates to the elite. But a team of volunteers in Norfolk found that over 80% also contained graffiti. Their digital archive is free for everyone to explore.
3. Wherefore art thou graffiti?
In the 19th century, it was common practice for visitors to Shakespeare’s birthplace to leave their names on the walls, including Charles Dickens, John Keats and Mark Twain. If you go there now, you’ll still find their names scratched into the panes of an upstairs window.
4. The caves at Lascaux
Strengthening a bond between the artist and their environment, these images were painted some 20,000 years ago. Viewing them as graffiti challenges how we define graffiti, making us question associations with destruction and illegality, rather than creation and community. You can find out more here.
5. Contemporary graffiti is archaeology too
The Graffiti Archaeology Project turns the whole question on its head and shows us that contemporary graffiti is archaeology too.
If archaeology casts our world as a place where people interact with and accumulate material culture – from trash piles, to statues, to paintings on a wall – then this site shows us that archaeology is all around us. And with digital resources like this, everyone can get involved.
Find out how you can get involved with archaeology wherever you are @TheDigVenturers
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