Carving our names on great monuments is a millennia-old tradition, but why do we do it?Breaking News
tags: monuments, ancient history
Laura Aitken-Burt is an archaeologist and historical consultant.
In 1810, during his first Grand Tour of Europe, Byron carved his name into a column base of the Temple of Poseidon on the Aegean coast. Although Byron himself might not have actually written the name that is left there, the story has become part of the history of the monument, searched for by his admirers among the hundreds of other names carved all over the temple.
Modern graffiti, however, is met with a very different reaction. In 2014 a Russian tourist was fined €20,000 for inscribing a large ‘K’ on a wall of the Colosseum in Rome, the fifth such incident that year. And the year before, a Chinese tourist hit the headlines for carving his name – Ding Jinhao – into the torso of a figure in the temple of Ramses II in Luxor.
What is the thinking behind such acts? Are tourists aiming for notoriety, to become part of the monument’s history? Or is it simply part of the experience of visiting the site? And, further, why is historical graffiti, which was equally destructive, considered evocative and tantalising? The motives behind them are, after all, probably the same. With the distance of time, however, graffiti comes to tell us about lives and moments that might otherwise have been lost.
The earliest graffiti of a person’s name on a monument has been identified by the historian Lionel Casson in a cave at Wadi Hammamat in Egypt – the name of Hena, an official under Menutuhotep III in 2000 BC, is chiselled into the sandstone alongside a list of his achievements. In ancient Greece, too, stoas (columned porticoes) were the meeting places of philosophers and the venues for schoolboys’ lessons. We therefore often see alphabets and Homeric verses written on their walls. Variations in spelling can tell us an enormous amount about the dialects and levels of literacy of these students, when the wax tablets and papyrus fragments on which they worked have been long lost.
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