10 Interesting Examples of Ancient Graffiti

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When thinking of graffiti, we all associate it with colorful, funky writing or drawings on buildings. Often unwanted, these drawings are sometimes mind-bogglingly good. Graffiti is an urban art form, and for the artist, it is often a way to express themselves.

Unfortunately, the end result is not always purely artistic. Many buildings are ruined by vulgar or senseless examples of graffiti. On the other hand, many urban areas are made vibrant and unique thanks to a team of sneaky artists.

Some don’t even have to hide — graffiti is often commissioned or simply allowed; it’s not always illegal. In those cases, it’s less of an artist’s expression and more of a pre-planned painting.

While graffiti might seem like a strictly modern invention found on brick walls all over the world, it’s not as modern as we’d think. Ancient civilizations also engaged in graffiti, and some of it has been preserved to this day.

Do you want to learn more about ancient graffiti? Read on below as we take you on a trip back to the past!

The History of Ancient Graffiti

Graffiti is older than most people realize. The first drawings were made on cave walls thousands of years ago. This then evolved into drawings on buildings. Ancient civilizations, such as the Romans and Greeks, would see people writing their names on buildings and inside monuments. There’d also be jokes, poems, and outright protests.

These days, tourists are notorious for vandalizing ancient structures by writing their names or drawing something silly, if not offensive. It’s almost funny to realize how little we have changed, as the Ancient Romans did much the same when visiting Egyptian ruins.

Graffiti, whether a form of art or a form of protest, has persisted for thousands of years. It documented the real life of the people who engaged in it, showing their problems and their sense of humor — much the way it does to this day.

1. Wild Animals

Period: 200-0 BC
Country: Sudan

Wild Animalsphoto source: Twitter

These drawings, made on the walls of the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es-Sufra, are over 2000 years old. The Great Enclosure is located in Sudan, but at the time when this graffiti came to be, it was part of the Kingdom of Kush.

The Great Enclosure resembles a labyrinth in the way it was built and is full of rooms that archaeologists don’t know the purpose of. However, there are speculations about the use of graffiti in order to identify what each room was used for.

This graffiti, picturing various animals such as baboons, dogs, rhinoceroses, elephants, and crocodiles, portrays more than just what is seen on the surface. Some of the animals are seen holding religious iconography. The lion with wings, pictured above, is likely the ancient deity Apedemak.


2. Word Square

Period: 177 CE
Country: Turkey

Word Squarephoto source: 

Found in the basement of a Roman basilica, this word square was an interesting finding when archeologists first discovered it in 2003. This graffiti is located in modern-day Turkey, but at the time of its being made, it was in the ancient city of Smyrna, Greece.

Made out of five words, each five letters in length, this just might be the first known example of a word game graffiti. All the words, written in Greek, can be read the same way both vertically and horizontally.

Archeologists believe that this word square was made sometime after an earthquake that took place in 177 CE.


3. Lupanar

Period: 0-79 CE
Country: Pompeii

Lupanarphoto source: Wikipedia

The Lupanar is a building located near the intersection of Vico del Lupanare and Vico del Balcone Pensile. It’s one of the landmarks in the ruins of Pompeii in Campania, Italy, close to the base of Mount Vesuvius.

This specific location was home to a lot of social interaction. According to archeologists, the Lupanar was a popular social hub. Its walls are scribbled with graffiti, including sports advertisements, colloquial messages, and political propaganda. There are also paintings, some erotic in nature, as well as other examples of day-to-day life.


4. Successus’ Love Triangle

Period: 0-79 CE
Country: Pompeii

Successus' Love Trianglephoto source: Wikipedia

Pompeii, once a vibrant and thriving resort town in Italy, was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. However, the ancient ruins still hold hundreds, if not thousands of examples of graffiti.

A true testament to the life locals lived back in those days, the messages are not always limited to something hugely meaningful. Sometimes, they are simple declarations of love — but they’re not always as wholesome as one might imagine.

Painted on the wall of a Pompeiian pub is a conversation between two men, both vying for the attention of a local girl named Iris. A total of three messages are exchanged. In the first one, Severus calls out Successus, stating that Successus loves Iris, but she does not return his affections. Severus calls himself the rival of Successus.

Promptly, Successus replies, calling Severus “envious” and “less handsome” than he is. Severus remains unprovoked and once again states that Iris does not love Successus, ending the exchange.


5. The Forgiveness of al-Jawn

Period: 23-132 AH
Country: Jordan

The Forgiveness of al-Jawnphoto source: iqsaweb

Arabic graffiti is present in many parts of the world. While many Arabic graffitis are inconsequential and talk about day-to-day life, there are also engravings and paintings of deeper nature, peppered with philosophical or religious messages.

The rock pictured above contains a message of the latter kind.  It’s nothing short of a religious plea. It shows a man by the name of al-Jawn, or someone close to him, begging for mercy for his sins.

The inscription reads: “Oh God, make fitting the forgiveness towards al-Jawn and have mercy on him.”


6. Aphrodisian Gladiators

Period: 300-400 AC
Country: Aphrodisias, Greece

Aphrodisian Gladiatorsphoto source: ias.edu

The small Greek Hellenistic city of Aphrodisias has many examples of ancient graffiti. Located close to modern-day Anatolia, Turkey, Aphrodisias was named after the Greek goddess of love – Aphrodite.

A lot of the graffiti found on Aphrodisian walls is rather simple. The above picture portrays a childlike drawing of a gladiator. There are similar examples that show local entertainers, animals, or religious symbols all around the area.


7. “The Inscription Will Remain.”

Period: 91 AH
Country: Jordan

The Inscription Will Remain.photo source: iqsaweb

Another highly interesting graffito from Jordan is this piece of Arabic writing. Poetic in its nature, it makes the reader contemplate the meaning of graffiti, and how lasting these ancient pieces of art have proven to be.

The inscription was written by someone called Mūsā son of ʿImrān. His wish was that his graffiti in Palmyra will be seen by people hundreds or thousands of years into the future. At the time of writing it, Mūsā already dreamed of the archeologists who unveiled his graffiti.

The ancient text reads: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand; my hand will wear out, but the inscription will remain.”


8. The Disgruntled Tourist

Period: 0-100 AC
Country: Egypt

The Disgruntled Touristphoto source: Archeology.org

We all know the Valley of Kings in Egypt. Famous for its mind-blowing tombs and pyramids, it is the location of some of humanity’s greatest monuments. Unfortunately, these testaments to human achievement are vandalized from time to time. What may come as a surprise is that vandalism was common even in ancient times.

The proof of that lies in the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses VI. Archeologists found over 1000 inscriptions made by tourists, carved and painted onto the walls of the tomb. One that stood out was a declaration made by a tourist who was displeased with their trip.

The tourist wrote, “I visited and I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!”


9. The Competing Pyramid Gangs

Period: 2550 BC
Country: Egypt

The Competing Pyramid Gangsphoto source: pbs.org

Building the famous pyramids in Giza was a grueling process that took a lot of hard work. Tens of thousands of Egyptians contributed to the building of these massive monuments. Some of the workers left behind graffiti, allowing archeologists and historians to learn more about the politics involved in the building.

Some of the inscriptions on the pyramids read “Drunks of Menkaure” and “Friends of  Khufu Gang”. Both Menkaure and Khufu were Egyptian kings who ordered the creation of the pyramids.

It appears that the gangs competed against each other. Some pyramids have inscriptions from both, one on each side.


10. House of Maius Castricius

Period: 0-79 CE
Country: Pompeii

House of Maius Castriciusphoto source: Wikipedia

This beautifully preserved graffiti shows that leaving messages on the walls of houses was not limited to public buildings. Thanks to the efforts of archeologists, the House of Maius Castricius contains some of the highest quality ancient graffiti in the world.

The walls of the house are filled with examples of ancient poetry written in Latin. These poems may seem untidy at first, but they are usually arranged vertically and do not intrude upon the space of other poems. Some inscriptions consist of both writing and images.

The photo above shows the staircase of the House of Maius Castricius containing some of the poetry found in this ancient site.


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