Roman Wall-inscriptions were the social media of ancient Roman culture. Some were painted on buildings to advertise information, while others were used by private individuals to record their experiences (e.g., through images, prayers, greetings to friends, favorite quotations of poetry) by writing with charcoal or scratching texts into wall plaster. The Herculaneum graffiti provide a rare body of several hundred handwritten documents that provide valuable insight into social structures, religion, economy, domestic life, and the realities of spoken versus written language (For interpretive work on graffiti, see Baird and Taylor, Varone 1994, 2012, Clarke, Cooley 2012; of Pompeii, see Benefiel 2010, 2011, Levin-Richardson 2011, Milnor 2014; on Herculaneum graffiti, see Della Corte 1958, Tran Tam Tinh 1988, Guadagno 1988, Langner 2001, Varone 2000, Varone 2012). This paper will discuss some interpretive gains we can make in understanding Roman written culture of the 1st c. CE by studying the Roman graffiti of Herculaneum on-site and in situ. Our paper will first present work from the pilot season
of the Herculaneum Graffiti project, a digital humanities initiative that seeks to identify, record, and analyze these wall-inscriptions using digital technologies that allow for better archaeological context and analysis. Second, we will share how we have begun digitizing Herculaneum’s graffiti, beginning with the publication of the drawn wall inscriptions of Herculaneum in the Epigraphic Database Roma, an international, collaborative database that aims to re-edit and digitize all ancient Greek and Latin inscriptions.
Herculaneum’s graffiti differ from those at Pompeii in number, in the density of their distribution, and in their subject matter. Moreover, there has been far less academic engagement with them. The graffiti of Herculaneum are less numerous than in Pompeii, although we do have many other forms of evidence for Roman hand-writing and literacy, including the wax tablets with the names of hundreds of the inhabitants of Herculaneum (Camodeca), the Album from the Augustalium (CIL IV, 1403, Guadagno, Pagano), and some painted messages on the Decumanus Maximus. As at Pompeii, graffiti in
Herculaneum (CIL IV, 10478-10717) occur in every possible interior, exterior, public, and domestic space and cover a range of topics including: poetic inscriptions, names, greetings, lewd drawings, written communications in the form of alphabets, tallies, games, shopping lists, drawings and word-art, and several written in Greek.
Our field season made a careful survey of the state of preservation of the Herculaneum graffiti and created updated records that expand upon the CIL using traditional and digital technologies including RTI photography software, GPS, and GIS mapping. We will discuss our use of RTI, a computational imaging technique, to capture images of incised drawings and a multi-line graffito preserved on a column (Guadagno 1988) where traditional photography techniques proved unable to record the lightly scratched inscriptions. This process has proven successful in studies of graffiti from Egypt, but the field season is a pioneering application to graffiti from Pompeii or Herculaneum. Our work was timely and important, as many of the inscriptions, including those published by Varone (2012) from his photographic campaigns of the 1990s are no longer well preserved, or have disappeared entirely.
An examination of a few Herculaneum graffiti in their archaeological context will demonstrate how considering inscribed drawings alongside written wall inscriptions enriches our overall understanding of social life in Herculaneum. Finally, we will discuss some of the challenges we have faced publishing images in an epigraphic database configured for text. Unlike other epigraphic databases, our project (the Ancient Graffiti Project) will provide an online database of the extant graffiti from the city of Herculaneum, located and mapped onto the plan of the city itself. This emphasis on spatial analysis allows us to see how graffiti interact with each other, and with their physical environment, and can begin to let researchers recognize larger patterns of distribution throughout the urban space of Herculaneum by experiencing graffiti as the citizens of Herculaneum did.