Scratching the Surface

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I am sure this title has been used a dozen times in discussion of graffiti but I really mean it. I, along with the ancient graffiti artists, am only scratching the surface and this is not intended as a scholarly investigation on graffiti; just a brief muse on the subject as I have witnessed quite a lot recently, scored onto the surface of ancient monuments in Sudan. Perhaps this is more a name and shame than anything else.

I hate modern graffiti, although I do admit to having an enormous soft spot for the genius of Banksy. I am full of contradiction as I also adore ancient Roman graffiti and have spent time researching the scribbled messages on the walls of the Roman houses in Pompeii that I am studying for my PhD. The often rude and jovial comments etched on the walls of the houses are a wonderful way to connect with the people who once inhabited them. So it’s basically modern spray paint scrawls I disapprove of.

But the abhorrent modern use of ‘tagging’, just as writing your name in full, is a way to leave your mark. Why do any of us feel the need to carve our names onto trees, scratch them onto wooden school desks or spray it on a railway bridge? All we are doing is defacing something and in essence leaving the one clue as to who did it: our names. Why does anyone have an urge to leave a trace of their name for everyone to see and often in a place that will be seen for generations to come? I freely admit that I am guilty of having this urge but I can confess that writing my name in huge letters in a sand dune or scratching it onto the mud section of a trench I dug in Pompeii shortly before it was back filled, feel less permanent than carving a name into stone. The wind blowing over the dune will have erased my name after a few days. But I still did it and I am not entirely sure I can answer why I had a desire to see my name written in a place where others could see it.
It must be something about leaving a mark and wanting others to recognise that you have been there, that you exist and that you will continue to exist in some form as long as the indelible mark is visible. I am sure others have written about this concept in detail but as I said, I am only thinking aloud.

What brought this on was a person called J. Hogg. J. Hogg has not written a seminal paper on the subject, no, they simply carved their name in neat little letters on a perfectly carved stone column drum in the Temple of Tuthmosis III at Soleb in Sudan.

J. Hogg's presence felt in the Temple at Soleb, Sudan.

J. Hogg’s presence felt in the Temple at Soleb, Sudan.

I was busy trying to find an angle to take a photograph and was aware of the delicate reliefs adorning many of the walls of the temple. I wanted one as a foreground object in the shot. This is how I met J. Hogg. Whoever J.Hogg was, they felt the need to emblazon the column with their name and leave it as a sign that they had once stood precisely where I was standing and had patiently scratched away at the stone.

J.Hogg was not alone in this act and there were others who had defaced the temple, in a bizarre way, mimicking the beautiful cartouche of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutmosis III. The classic ‘I woz ‘ere’ statement. The only decent thing J.Hogg did, if we are looking for a positive here, was choose a plain section of the column drum. Small mercies.

On arrival in Khartoum and a visit to the National Museum of Sudan I was struck by the sheer number of recent names that were scored onto the reconstructed temples on display. Given that I am an old romantic at heart, an archaeologist, whose purpose it is to reconnect with past, and as I have said, full of contradiction, there is an inexcusable tiny part of me that gets excited at the connection with, and identification of, another human being. So for a brief moment I find myself captivated by J. Collinson who was evidently at Semna Temple in 1894. I have an immediate simple image in my head of a male traveller (in a totally sexist way I am assuming each of my rogues, are men) wearing a breezy white shirt that has turned a little yellow from the sand and khaki jodhpur type trousers. I am probably not dressing him fashionably correct for 1894, I am giving him a romantic Engish Patient-type desert adventure garb. Oh, he has a pith helmet too. All my 19th century graffiti artists have pith helmets which are usually slumped over their leather satchels whilst they sweat profusely and wipe their foreheads as they carve their names.

J. Collinson 1894 at Semna Temple, Sudan

J. Collinson 1894 at Semna Temple, Sudan

The mental image gets somewhat more complicated when I meet Augusto Diamanti who had spent a fair amount of time at Semna Temple, given the elaborate inscription he carved onto the exterior of the temple on the 28th of October 1849.

Augusto Diamanti at Semna Temple, Sudan

Augusto Diamanti at Semna Temple, Sudan

The name can only be Italian and so is the spelling of October as “Ottobre” so that confirms, that. Being an Italian traveller, I imagine him as more flamboyant than J.Hogg and J.Collinson and certainly his ridiculously complicated carving would suggest his slightly eccentric manner. Perhaps someone can decipher what the exact meaning of his script means but to me it looks as if he is learning words and their endings. A hell of a way to remember them – to spend ages carving them into a Nubian temple. I half want to imagine that he is actually the excavator of the site and this list was meant to last the longevity of a dig season as a constant reminder – hence the elaborate nature of it. It seems a lot of work to casually walk away from.

I was then struck by the number of individuals that had blatantly identified themselves by etching their names, not on blank stones, but across the ancient reliefs. Really quite astounding: the sheer audacity of the graffiti artists thinking that their name, millennia after the stone had been laid, was more important than the delicate carvings that adorned the surface. Yes, Mr Downey, I am looking at you.

W. Downey making his mark felt

W. Downey making his mark felt

And Mr Achmet, you shouldn’t feel too smug either. Single handedly, quite literally, you have ruined this glorious light relief that you must have travelled a fair distance to see.

Achmet single handedly destroyed a great work of art

Achmet single handedly destroyed a great work of art

And that I think is where I have the biggest problem. These travellers ventured out into the wilds of the desert in the 19th century to marvel at the wonders that these temples offered and then thought the best course of action was to deface the beauty they had enjoyed by applying their name to it. I simply cannot marry the desire to visit a site, and one that cannot have been easy to reach, and think “I know, what this monument, with some of the most serene ancient art needs is my name emblazoned across it.”

And I know there there could be more than one Holroyd travelling in Sudan in the late 19th century but I did find his name at Sedeinga and then again on the Temple from Kumma. Different dates admittedly but I would like to think of it as being the same person and that his visit to Sedeinga was brief as his attention to letter formation simply doesn’t have the gravitas given to those in Kumma.

Holroyd in Sedeinga

Holroyd in Sedeinga

Holroyd in Kumma

Holroyd in Kumma

There are plenty of other rogues in my gallery but no point in naming and shaming them all. They are long gone and belonged to a time when the discovery of these sites in the desert must have felt a world away. Perhaps that is why they felt the need to leave their mark – it was a sense of accomplishment at having reached the isolated site that they wanted to share with later travellers. They were essentially treating the stone monuments as a visitors book.

There is now a follow up to this post where the intriguing identity of Augusto Diamanti is potentially revealed and we learn of the further travels of Mr Holroyd… Scratching the Surface… Again

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48 thoughts on “Scratching the Surface

  1. Kelly M

    I think, deep down, everyone wants to leave their mark on this world. Some do it by writing a book, others do it by setting up a school or hospital ward….and I guess some do it by defacing ancient monuments…

    Thanks for this fascinating article. It’s funny how we can see a historical value in studying ancient graffiti while simultaneously condemning the vandals’ actions and those of their modern-day counterparts.

    Reply
    1. pompei79 Post author

      I couldn’t agree more with everything you say. I did say I was full of contradiction and whilst detesting modern graffiti have found ancient graffiti to be a lifeline to my understanding of the Romans. It’s a tough call. But I can’t ever see a spray painted tag revealing much to future archaeologists as to the nature of that person. Not enough is given away… Barely a legible name in most cases. Modern taggers are in their own community.

      Reply
      1. Kelly M

        I know what you mean. I’m partial to “artistic graffiti” if it’s in a designated area (the local council put up a few graffiti walls for this purpose) but even that is often ruined by ugly illegible tags.

        Have you heard about China’s latest attempt to stop tourists from etching their names on the Great Wall?

  2. Michael Link

    Great commentary. It also drives me crazy, crazy, crazy. Tagging train cars in the US is huge. I’ve carved my initials in a few trees in my younger days. Even climbed very high once to carve my initials with a girls. Trees gone, girls gone. Temples and etc are still there. Just shows to me a gigantic lack of respect for the places.

    Reply
    1. pompei79 Post author

      It is a lack of respect which is why I can’t understand why travellers who stumbled on these art works and monuments wanted to defile them. Maybe the monuments were not enough in their cultural realm for them to understand the significance of what they were doing but if that is true why were they there? So hard to comprehend and unfortunately the damage has been done.

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Scratching the Surface… Again | Sophie Hay

    1. pompei79 Post author

      Interestingly, it seems to have been ‘the done’ thing in those days. Now it is accepted as being disrespectful and an act of vandalism. Thankfully.

      Reply
      1. Insurance Agent of Ohio

        I do wonder though, I am sure you have heard of Banksy, when do we consider the vandalism art? The work by some of those are actually more stunning than the original. I know, that is not usually the case, but sometimes just sometimes I wonder.

      2. pompei79 Post author

        I do indeed know Banksy and actually reference my adoration for his his work in the text. He’s a particularly intelligent individual with a wonderful perceptive mind and I applaud him and his work. I hope I make it clear that it is the spray painter who merely tag themselves in a way mainly to demonstrate to other tagggers that they have been there. Their code is principally understood within their own community and us outsiders are not necessarily the target audience. This is different. A graffiti artist with a public message can be wonderful. Thanks so much for your comment and for engaging in this curious subject.

  4. Shawn

    Random thought, but the english names at least could be tracked down in various online versions of the census… of course, that’d be a hang of a job, but still doable. Which’d give some sense, perhaps, of likely candidates and why they were there in the first place…

    Reply
    1. pompei79 Post author

      There has been a lot of updates since this post. It would seem a shed load of work has been done unbeknown to me at the time of my writing, on these travellers especially those that also appear in Egypt. Holroyd for instance gets spotted in Aswan. See the next blog post. There are volumes published too http://www.egypt-sudan-graffiti.be/ thanks for suggesting though!

      Reply
      1. Shawn

        Yes, always late to the party, me. Cool stuff – well done! That other little project could include stuff like this…

      2. pompei79 Post author

        Oh golly, yes, that other little project. Totally fallen off my radar. Yikes. Back to it. Thanks for gentle prod. Not sure I remember any graffiti there.

  5. Spinning For Difficulty

    In a way the fact that we can be bothered by the graffiti at all only serves to emphasise the sheer permanence of these monuments set in stone. In 500 or 4000 years time nobody will disapprove of graffiti scrawled onto our contemporary buildings or monuments made with steel or concrete or glass or some clever modern material ……. because they will all be long gone anyway.

    Many of these structures were built by long lost civilisations. The fact that they remain with us at all is a miracle … except that it’s not a miracle really – its a testament to the knowledge and expertise of whoever built them. They made them to last and they sure did :)

    A rather nice graffiti story…

    Reply
  6. Jean

    Thanks for this very interesting blog post. I definitely hate the term “tagging” as a synonymn for modern graffiti…it is highly disrespectful for the original artists who spent days, weeks labouring over their vision and also for the architects for some great buildings.

    Tagging…is to me just indexing, metadata tagging or what dogs/animals wear/get branded. I’m not interested in graffiti laid on top, just art in its original nakedness. Period. I actually see graffiti a subversion on art abuse and…parasitic. The defacer is just using someone else’s original artwork as their canvas.

    Reply
    1. pompei79 Post author

      I was of the same opinion but the more I dig into this topic the more I am getting the impression and hearing from others, that it was simply ‘the done’ thing in those days. A matter of prestige that you had been there. Incredibly selfish but a fashionable past time. It hasn’t stopped people doing the very same nowadays but, at least in most cases, there is public disapproval.

      Reply
  7. Cherylann Mollan

    I never could fathom why, or rather how, people casually declare their names or the names of their love interests on historical monuments. When I stand before an architectural wonder of the old world, I feel humbled in its presence, like I’m an insignificant being standing before immeasurable talent and skill. I can never bring myself to have the audacity to scribble my name on such a masterpiece!

    Reply
  8. ambroseanthonythompson

    Graffiti stops becoming a nuisance when we begin to wonder why it was etched into visual history?

    Reply
    1. pompei79 Post author

      That is a brilliant question. As an archaeologist, I guess I am naturally curious as to the layers of human activity from ancient to more recent but it’s not for everyone. There is certainly intrigue from my point of view also in the perception of monuments through the ages. Archaeologists have also benefitted from the rich and diverse nature of Roman graffiti especially in Pompeii so I really can’t argue that it is a bad thing for our profession. Great question though, thanks.

      Reply
  9. ndieckman

    This was a really cool read. I’ve read about graffiti artists and Banksy as well, but nothing quite like this, people basically tagging works of art that are obviously superior to their tag.
    This has certainly peaked my interest. I sort of have a soft spot for street art and the stories behind graffiti, usually I think it adds beauty and interest, but in this case… I don’t know how to feel. Lol

    Reply
    1. pompei79 Post author

      Haha! It’s a difficult one because my interest is in all the layers of human activity but yet have no time for modern scrawls. So glad you found it interesting. Thanks.

      Reply
  10. ermigal

    Great post, and it certainly is a mystery why people deface important monuments and artwork. I was appalled to see graffiti on ancient buildings in Italy, and in western U.S. on centuries old pictographs (correct term? not sure) Lack of consideration for others and society as a whole!

    Reply
  11. isweefy

    Woah nice job on this fascinating article; very well done. I think the reaosn people want to leave their names on buildings or other places that are “permanent” is because they want to know that their name will be somewhere “forever”. They might be fascinated by the fact that many people may walk by and see that name and wonder who they are or what’s their story. But again, thank you for this wonderful article it was very entertaining.

    Reply
  12. julie

    Why do people do this? But I’ve got to be honest human behaviour confuses me anyway. I’ve seen graffiti on beautiful cliff wall and there’s even some ‘odd’ scratchings on Stonehenge…..why?

    Reply
  13. nicolletheriveter

    As a younger girl visiting Italy with my family, I found the abundance of graffiti unexpected if not alarming. Naples: plastered. Rome: Dabbed. And yet, within the Sistine Chapel, seeing the font-like etchings of past Roman Tourists (who I imagined were ransackers), I too felt blessed with a tiny secret of history, an inside joke with the dead rebellious.

    Reply
  14. M. R.

    WONDERFULLY interesting ! – but re the tags of today, I find absolutely nothing in this wide world to excuse them, as they are completely indecipherable to anyone but the revolting mates of the tagger. Pardon: an aged peeve. ;-)
    You are so lucky to be working there in Rome it was my husband’s favourite city in the world (and beaten only by Milan, for me).
    Easy to see how discovering these vandals’ work is fascinating for you as a student of archaeology, Sophie – it’s ALL ‘civilization’, eh? Just some less civilized than others … :-\

    Reply
  15. Jess Carey

    I saw probably the exact same things as you – I even have some of the same photos from my trip to Egypt last year… it’s absolutely incredible to see, isn’t it?!

    Reply

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