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The hidden power of graffiti: unofficial language is an important resource for archaeologists and social historians alike.

From ancient texts and tomb reliefs, the Latin we’re most familiar with today is largely based on very formal, or even ‘official’, representations of the language, but the reality would have been much more vernacular. For archaeologists and social historians, linguistic samples taken from ancient graffiti provide valuable insights into the colloquialisms people used in everyday life.

Now, to grips with the way people spoke on the streets of Roman Spain, the University of Valencia is about to start a study of the graffiti found on a type of moulded pottery known as ‘terra sigillata’, which were made in Roman Italy, Gaul and Spain between 100 BC – 300 AD.

The Sigillata study

Sigillata pottery

The study focuses on the words written on these ceramics, but will also look at the imagery and decorative elements stamped on them, many of which depict the popular beliefs and habits of the time.

The graffiti not only provides important linguistic data, such as popular colloquial phrases, but also valuable ethnological information and an insight into any variations in language and customs of the different people producing the ceramics.

A window into the past…

Without these very personal glimpses into ancient life, it is often hard for us to remember that these were real people, using the language to chat, swear, and joke with friends. Imagining that they all spoke to each other like the great orators, is just the same as the false generalisation believed by some that all English people speak the Queen’s English (or that peculiar cockney accent performed by Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).

Graffiti

Elsewhere, a huge amount of graffiti from ancient Rome and Pompeii still survives today. Subject matter ranges from swear words, rude messages (written on the wall in the basilica at Pompeii is the line “Lucilla ex corpore lucrum faciebat/Lucilla made money from her body”), and rude drawings (the Romans’ preoccupation with drawing penises is well renowned), to the mundane (a weekly shopping list has been found scratched on the wall of a house in Pompeii).

[Read more: Top 5 ancient graffiti sites]

Another of the most common forms of graffiti is simply the name of the artist. This is still a tradition that continues today, the majority of graffiti we see tends to be the ‘tag’ of each individual.

Political sloganeering

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Children using an Israeli army watch tower as a swing ride, said to have been painted by Banksy. (Via the Guardian, Credit: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)

But graffiti can also carry a political message. In these instances the graffiti can help give a valuable insight into the wider scale political, social, and economic issues affecting any one particular group of people at a certain time.

In Pompeii there are many examples of political graffiti, including comments on elections to seats of office: “All the late-night drinkers are canvassing for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia to be aedile”

Graffiti is still used as a way to comment on both local and global politics today, just look at artists like Banksy whose recent work focuses on the current conflict in Gaza.

The findings of the Sigillata study will undoubtedly add to our understanding of the lives of ordinary people within the study period. Graffiti is not just the vandalism it is often made out to be. It’s about freedom of expression and opinion, outside of any social or political controls, and can give a more accurate portrayal of each society; the important issues that the people face, along with a taste of their daily life, language, personal thoughts, and beliefs.

Source: Science Daily

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Rosanna Ring

Rosanna is one of DigVentures' intrepid Community Archaeologists. She's busy turning Barrowed Time (our dig at Morecambe's Bronze Age burial mound) into a real seaside adventure, and getting the Pop-Up Museum on the Prom ready for you to visit!

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