Herculaneum Graffiti Project

January 29, 2015
Latin majors participate in summer field school to learn Roman epigraphy

By Jess Dankenbring, '17

Romans wrote everything from poetry and greetings to names and tallies on their walls. It’s a form of writing that has given us the modern term graffiti, from the Italian, “scratched in” and researchers study these ancient Roman handwritten texts and drawings on walls in a science known as epigraphy.

“It’s not like modern graffiti where we think of it as something that defaces a surface,” says Erika Zimmermann Damer, assistant professor of classical studies. “It’s in fact a very integral part of interior and exterior space in the Roman world.”

Damer and two of her students, Gia Nyhuis, ’17, and Kathryn Clikeman, ’17, had the opportunity to study epigraphy firsthand this past summer as part of a small group working at the ancient site of Herculaneum.

Herculaneum is a rare archaeological site that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. It lies just a few miles from its more well-known counterpart of Pompeii.

“The city of Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 meters of liquid stone [scientifically know as pyroclastic flow] that quickly became solid when it flowed out of Mount Vesuvius,” Damer says. “And so it was essentially encapsulated in stone, which has made it very hard to excavate.”

The group of students and professors had two jobs while at the site. The first was to learn how to study epigraphy and the second was to record and document as much of the ancient graffiti as possible before pieces of it are destroyed and no longer readable.

“They’re preserved on the ancient wall plaster and the wall plaster falls off,” Damer says. “Once the site has been opened, now for over a hundred years, the wall plaster becomes destroyed by all kinds of things. It’s destroyed by tourists. It’s destroyed by sunlight. It’s destroyed by weathering. It’s destroyed by any sort of earthquake activity that there might be.

“The Romans wrote their graffiti everywhere. Some of the texts that were published and photographed in the 1990s are already gone because of the way that archeological preservation works and doesn’t work.”

The group used measuring tapes and meter sticks, as well as flashlights, digital cameras, and GPS units to record the graffiti.

“We measured each individual graffito,” Damer says. “We recorded it, we sketched it, and we photographed it. And one of the very cool things about ancient graffiti is that you have to study the same object maybe four or five different times — in the morning and the afternoon and the evening — because the light makes such a huge difference as to whether you can see it or not.”

Damer’s students Gia Nyhuis and Katherine Clikeman took Latin throughout high school, but this experience offered an element of learning that cannot be attained in a classroom.

“I think my favorite part was being able to go to Italy itself and see the site not just as a tourist, but as someone actually learning something and doing research,” Clikeman says. “When you go to Pompeii, you just walk around as a tourist because that’s all you’re really allowed to go in for. So it was really special to have a research purpose in being there and then having something that you’re focused on learning.”

But this rare opportunity wasn’t just a chance to study ancient writing and art up close — it’s about as close as Latin students can get to a language immersion experience.

“It’s not a spoken language, obviously, so you can’t really study abroad with Latin,” Nyhuis says. “And of course we weren’t speaking Latin to one another, but it definitely helped my Latin skills tremendously, just being there. We worked with so many graduate students and even professors who are getting their doctorates right now in classical studies.”

Damer agrees that the study of these simple writings provide a different glimpse into the ancient language than that of a history textbook.

“They [our students] are right there, millimeters away from the writing of any number of different Romans,” Damer says. “Not just the graffiti of a super-educated, highly elite Roman who wrote a text that we’ve preserved [in books] for 2,000 years. This is the Latin of everyday life.”