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Contextualizing a New Graffito List from the Athenian Agora

Laura Gawlinsky

A small fragment of an amphora with a list scratched on its exterior was discovered in the 2008 excavations of the Athenian Agora. This paper presents a text of this list and outlines its relationships to the object on which it was inscribed, the building in which it was deposited, and similar lists from the same site. These relationships question the distinctions between public and private, official and casual.

The graffito was found in a fourth century B.C. fill between floors of a building at the southwest edge of the excavation area. Tentatively identified as the Strategeion, the building is now under reexamination and its civic function has been questioned (Camp 2007: 657-660). The inscribed sherd could not be significantly older than its context based on letter forms and orthography, indicating a relatively short life-span. Although much of the eight-line text still defies translation, some of the terms suggest an inventory of materials used in public grain storage. When compared to the handful of texts from the Agora corpus categorized as messages and lists (Lang 1976: 8-11), four texts scratched onto saucer fragments (B 12-15) stand out: roughly contemporary in date and similar in the form and content of the writing (i.e., listed items with some numbered notations), three were uncovered in the vicinity of the Tholos and have been argued to be supply lists for its kitchen; the fourth is from South Stoa I. It is tempting to claim that this group of texts, together with the new list inscribed on the amphora fragment, provides firm evidence for the management of some of the more mundane aspects of Athenian civic activity. However, the fact that the best-preserved of the lists (B 12) is frequently used to illustrate the kinds of items one might find in a private kitchen (e.g., loaves of bread and dishes) underscores the generic nature of these texts. Furthermore, the problems with interpreting the function of the so-called Strategeion warn against potential circularity: must a civic nature be proposed on the basis of a few words from the graffito, or is it preferable for the building to inform the text? A need for casual, disposable writing existed in many contexts and recycled ceramic materials were available widely. In what ways does interpretation of similar texts change based on context or civic association? That these graffito lists appear equally at home in an administrative building or private house argues for either fluidity of these kinds of texts or a flaw in our expectations. 

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Graffiti and Their Supports: Informal Texts in Context

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