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Virginia Scholars' Ancient Graffiti Project

Washington & Lee University

Scholars from Washington and Lee and the University of Richmond are sharing a surprising discovery – showing and explaining ancient graffiti online. 

Rebecca Benefiel has spent more than a decade studying what the people of Pompei and Herculaneum wrote on their walls. 

“There were public inscriptions that were painted on building facades – high up in large letters by people whose job it was to post inscriptions for public consumption, and this included the advertisements for gladiatorial games and campaign posters for people who were running for political office, because they had elections every year, as well as notices of a lost horse.”

But the professor of classics at Washington and Lee says there were also smaller words scratched into wall plaster outside and inside of buildings.

“They’re very small and subtle, and you would probably have to know where they were to see them, but we can see in certain instances that people are writing back and forth to each other and expecting someone to be reading it.”

Washington and Lee Professor Rebecca Benefiel heads back to Pompei next summer to continue her research on ancient graffiti.

Archeologists described these as graffi or scratches, and because they were small, they came to be known as graffiti.  There were prayers to the gods and cheerful notes to friends.

“But instead of just saying, ‘Hi, Sandy!’ it would be, ‘Rebecca says hi to Sandy, and I send greetings, and I hope you’re well.’”

Benefiel says the messages were almost always positive.  Nobody wrote Down with the Emperor, although people did wish him and his new bride well, and profanity was rarely to be found on the walls of the ancient world.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief