Scribbling Through History: For a comparative study of graffiti from Ancient Egypt onwards


The workshop will take place on 23-25 September 2013 at Oxford University

(Oriental Institute and Balliol College)

The event is organised with the support of the Budge Fund (University College), the John Fell Fund and the Oriental Institute.

Abstract :

Graffiti have been left on natural sites and public monuments in most societies. In spite of their variety in form and content, they can be generally understood as secondary inscriptions that redefine and appropriate such environments: They mark a position in time and history, a relation to space and a territorial claim; they are material displays of individual identity and social interaction.

Although many primary studies of such inscriptions have been carried out, this workshop will for the first time address historical graffiti in a holistic manner as a specific cultural practice and as an anthropological object that illuminates these key aspects of human experience.

This exploratory conference will bring together scholars working on graffiti and parietal inscriptions, mainly from past societies where such practices were an effective medium of self-definition and space-appropriation. Graffiti have become a focus of attention in many specialised disciplines (Egyptology, Assyriology, Classics) as a rich means of documenting features of society otherwise difficult to track in normative and official sources. In spite of the different eras, locations and languages involved, the issues encountered by scholars are often similar. Through comparing cultures where graffiti played an important role, our aim is to provide a foundation for exploring the immense potential of graffiti for cultural and anthropological studies.

Four Core Questions

Four core-questions will help establish a framework with which to compare graffiti distributed widely through time and space:

1/ Self-fashioning and group identity: Self-fashioning is a key anthropological concept that describes how individuals relate to their social environment, or how they fashion a distinctive experience of the world they inherit from their historical past and physical situation. Graffiti can be questioned within this framework, as they are often a display of individual experience in a monumental context. They also seem to appear typically in clusters – a hypothesis that needs to be tested – and can express group cohesion as well as social competition.

2/ Space appropriation: Central to the interpretation of graffiti is their physical setting within a natural or architectural environment. They create territories by reshaping and redefining a site. We need to ask how graffiti in a natural environment differ from those in a man-made environment. When do graffiti change a natural site into a man-made one? This leads on the question of access: are graffiti always public and addressed to a wide audience? What about hidden and isolated graffiti? Can one write for oneself alone?

3/ Posterity and temporality of writing: Graffiti can be interpreted as testimony of a wide range of religious concerns. Writing on a wall seems to answer a broad human need for survival in social memory. So graffiti should be questioned within the framework of the anthropology of writing and performativity  (thanksgiving, offering, ex voto, etc.).

4/ Literacy and manuscripts culture: Graffiti are understood here mostly as textual inscriptions, but they can take on monumental dimensions. What distinguishes them from rock paintings and parietal writing? What roles have they played in ancient and traditional societies with low literacy rates, where the elite held de facto a monopoly on writing? In a manuscript culture, writing on a wall is the closest equivalent to publication: How can graffiti have been used as testimony to literacy skills and the diffusion of literary culture within a society?

Faced with the anthropological richness of their objects of study, many scholars (e.g. J. Baird, C. Taylor, Ancient Graffiti in Context, 2010, on Greco-roman graffiti) have expressed the need to re-focus the definition of the word ‘graffiti’, which is almost exclusively associated in our modern society with a domain of subversion, hooliganism or underground culture. Historical graffiti, the subject of this exploratory workshop, do need a new and specific paradigm.

A growing body of research on self-fashioning (followers of S. Greenblatt, Self-fashioning in the Renaissance, 1981), on the anthropology of writing and learned practices (C. Jacob, Les Lieux de Savoir, I & II, 2007 and 2011) and the archaeology of space appropriation (R. Bradley, An Archaeology of natural places, 2000) has opened up the avenues of reflection for this project.

By fostering cross-regional, diachronic and integrative approaches, the workshop will develop new frameworks and agenda for this research. Hopefully, this project will allow diverse primary works on corpora of graffiti in different cultures to come out of their isolation. The invited scholars will draw upon their knowledge of graffiti in their specific areas to exchange ideas. We will develop approaches to the construction of comparative frameworks for the study of graffiti in a broader cultural and anthropological perspective. Each participant will give an overview of graffiti in their own field of expertise before drawing on specific and original case studies to discuss the key questions posed in the invitation. Panel chairs will develop potential models for discussion from the examples presented during each thematic. Ample scope for formal and informal discussion will be allowed with each paper. A core group of papers on material from the Ancient Near East will guarantee the coherence and consistency necessary for relevant comparison.

It is one of our main goals to integrate smaller, often isolated, field and primary-source studies into general research. Continental European scholars have mainly worked on the primary sources and now feel the need to integrate their work in a more general research currency, which has so far mainly developed in the United Kingdom and North-America. The latter traditions draw extensively from the social sciences, while German, Italian and French approaches have been governed by interests in philology, historical development and chronology.

The workshop is the first stage of a developing network. It will lead to the publication of a reference book on graffiti. Chapters devoted to specific cultural areas will be balanced by syntheses on specific thematic aspects by the panel chairs and by an opening essay on the subject and its previous history by the convenor.


Science topics

Session 1: Appropriation of space

Session 2: Social interactions and self-fashioning

Session 3: Access, audience, performance, posterity

Session 4: Literacy and scholarly practices

Session 5: Religious identity and conquest, dedication and ritual display



Participants (speakers and discussants) with their areas of expertise


Ancient worlds

– Dr. Cornelia Kleinitz (Johannesburg), Graffiti research in Ancient Sudan

–       Prof. John Baines (Oxford), Self-presentation, the position of writing in Egyptian society, social forms modelling.

–       Prof Roger Bagnall (New York), Social and economic history of Hellenistic, Roman and Late Antique Egypt; Everyday writing in the graeco-roman East

–       Dr. Alain Delattre (Brussels University): Local cults, pilgrimage and religious life in Christian Egypt; field-work on early Christian graffiti in the Theban mountain in Egypt

–        Dr. Elizabeth Frood (Oxford), Self-fashioning, sacred space. Fieldwork on temples’ graffiti in Ancient Egypt

–        Prof. Mark Smith (Oxford), Professor of Egyptology, Oxford University: Edition of Demotic graffiti from Egypt

–       Dr. Fredrik Hagen (Copenhague) Egyptology, Cultural identities and literature

–       Dr. Hana Navratilova (Prague): Visitors’ inscriptions in Ancient Egypt

–       Dr. Laila Nehmé (CNRS, Paris), Archaeology and epigraphy of the Nabatean and North-Arabic space, Graffiti and circulations in the Ancient Near East (fieldwork)

–       Dr. Chloé Ragazzoli (Oxford), Cultural history of Ancient Egypt; scribal practices; perception of space.

–       Prof Richard Salomon (Washington University), Sanskrit and Prakrit language and literature, epigraphy; Calligraphic graffiti and travellers in Ancient India

–       Dr Karen Stern (New York), Iconography and graffiti in ancient Jewish devotional and mortuary contexts.

–       Dr. Pierre Tallet (Paris-Sorbonne), Desert inscriptions in Ancient Egypt; fieldwork in mining and expeditions’ sites


Middle Ages


–       Prof. Paul Bertrand (Liege University): Ordinary writing in the Middle Ages

–       Prof. Glen Dudbridge (Oxford), Poetic wall writing in China, Chinese vernacular culture

–       Dr. Frédéric Imbert (Aix-en-Provence), Arab graffiti and Islamic expansion in the Middle Ages


Early Modern Europe


–       Susanna Gebhardt (Geneva University), Parietal writing in Early Modern Europe



–       Prof. Christian Jacob (CNRS, EHESS, Paris): Classics; anthropology of learned practices; realms of scholarship

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