Tag Archives: 19th century travellers

Scratching the Surface… Again

DSC_4255_2I had absolutely no idea that the few words (see my last blogpost Scratching the Surface) I wrote about some named, but yet unknown, 19th century travellers to Sudan would lead down quite such an intriguing path. There is more interest in this topic than I had thought, when I amateurishly shared my somewhat fantastical thoughts on who the rogues were, who scratched their names into the surfaces of ancient monuments in Sudan. This post really serves as an update.
I received lovely comments from people about the blog post and was quite content that a few people had enjoyed my whimsical and light approach to this curiosity. But something was bugging me. Fine, in a way, write your name on a monument and walk away knowing you have indelibly left you name for future visitors to see. This is straight forward and the majority of my rogues did just that; one, in more places than I had thought possible, but we will return to the rogue that is Mr Holroyd later. No it was the elaborate and flamboyant Mr Augusto Diamanti, the Italian, who had concocted quite a complex graffito with his name, the date, a series of seemingly Latin abbreviations and a list of abbreviated words which in my mind was a grammar list of sorts. And this, all framed in a border carved in the manner of a grand architectural monument. This particular example of a graffito seemed to hold more of a story than the others but it was just deciphering that story which was the problem.


So, nowadays when I have a query, particularly when I think it may involve Latin, I turn to the best and fastest response unit there is – Twitter. I am an archaeologist and have plenty of lovely, generous, and ultimately curious, Classicist followers, that I know one will spot my distress call and help me out. So I put out a gentle cry of help and immediately it gets a decent number of retweets from various people. Good. The word is being spread. Then come the obligatory jokes as to what the graffito may represent: a 19th century takeaway menu was possibly my favourite. And then come the questions. This is definitely a good sign. People are curious and need context so I start replying. Then there is the moment of wishing that Twitter had more than 140 characters to enable the grouping of as many people as possible into the same thread and thus share the thought processes and answers without repeating oneself. But never mind, as hostess of the question I then feel duty bound to try and collate thoughts, pass them around and hope we come up trumps.
Little batches of people are grouping and thoughts and suggestions are being swilled around with a lot of ‘what if’s’ and ‘that can’t be that’s’ and ‘this could stand for’s’. The one thing that we are all acutely aware of is the key to this whole stone carved riddle is Augusto Diamanti himself. This induces a search and while I filter through the obligatory “he is on Facebook” search results, someone else possibly identifies him as “Fr. Augusto Diamanti”. A man of the cloth. Our first possible identification which works as a catalyst and immediately sends us to find him in his 19th century home of…. India. None of us were expecting that. Fr. Augusto Diamanti worked in a Catholic Seminary in Jeppu, India in the 19th century. He had arrived at the seminary in 1879, which made him a very young man in 1849 to have been travelling in Sudan but this was not insurmountable.
Twitter discourse then turned to Augusto being a missionary in Sudan and perhaps the leader of a group of religious people travelling through Egypt and Sudan. Not an impossible theory, but not a particularly plausible one either. Twitter attention was soon concentrated on the fragments of three-lettered words arranged in seemingly two lists. Were they people and places? If so, did the first three letters represent a name which was followed by a three-lettered code for the country of origin? Or were they names and then religious rank? Or were they both three letters of names? In this case, a simple abbreviation of the person’s first and last name. After playing with the options most of the Tweeters were in favour of the last option; the curly brackets grouping families, identifiable by their coded surname. The language we had all agreed, was Italian. There were then, according to this theory, a number of lone travellers and almost certainly they were of mixed sex. SOF can really only be used in SOFia (Sophie) in an Italian name and EDV is most certainly a male called EDVardo (Edward). Looking at the lists in this light we evidently have two large family groups, a couple, and a number of individual travellers all under the auspices of Augusto Diamanti.

But Augusto, despite being our principal cast member, was still an enigma. Well, he was until he had a character transformation. Some bright Twitter spark alerted us to this tiny passage.

Dottore Augusto Diamanti. From Descrittori italiani dell'Egitto e di Alessandria: Memoria by Giacomo Lumbroso 1879 Dottore Augusto Diamanti. From Descrittori italiani dell’Egitto e di Alessandria: Memoria by Giacomo Lumbroso 1879

Suddenly we have Dr Augusto Diamanti travelling in Egypt in 1850 with his friend Michele Lessona who was a zoologist on a quest to find specimens; in particular “electric fish from the Nile”.

Dr Diamanti and his electric Nile fish. From In Egitto, la Caccia della Jena 1883-95 by Michele Lessona Dr Diamanti and his electric Nile fish. From In Egitto, la Caccia della Jena 1883-95 by Michele Lessona

Augusto Diamanti, also a zoologist had probably worked at the University of Pisa in Italy and was responsible for dissection in the Zoology department. Lessona had worked near Cairo in the hospital of Khankah and we meet Dr Augusto Diamanti again at the moment in 1849 when Lessona leaves Egypt and returns to Italy to work at the University of Turin with Prof. De Filippi to whom Augusto had written the letter of recommendation and provided Lessona with a particular gift to present Filippi – a large and rare collection of lizard specimens.

Augusto Diamanti provides a large and rare collection of lizards as way of introduction between Michele Lessona and his future boss, Dr De Filippi Augusto Diamanti provides a large and rare collection of lizards as way of introduction between Michele Lessona and his future boss, Dr De Filippi
Augusto Diamanti writes a letter of recommendation with accompanying lizards Augusto Diamanti writes a letter of recommendation with accompanying lizards

Both these quotes come from the Bollettino dei Musei di Zoologia ed Anatomia comparata dell R. Universita di Torino 1886.

These fragments of information tally with the dates of the 1849 graffito with considerably less shoe-horning than our religious Augusto Diamanti needed, but there was still the issue of what Dr Augusto Diamanti was doing with a large group of Italians at the temple in Semna, in the north of modern Sudan, carving their names onto a temple wall.

I wish I had that answer and the answer to who the group were. I think I have exhausted the energy of my simply amazing team of Twitter researchers who have brought me so far along my journey. The possible Latin or Italian one-lettered abbreviations remain undeciphered too. But we do have a likely identity for our graffiti ‘villain’: Dr Augusto Diamanti who worked in Pisa, and then in Cairo and we do know precisely where he was, in the company of a group of Italians, on the 28th of October 1849.

Drawing of the Temple at Semna, Sudan in 1835, fourteen years before Augusto Diamanti would change the face of it forever. Drawing of the Temple at Semna, Sudan in 1835, fourteen years before Augusto Diamanti would change the face of it forever. Source: New York Public Library

I am indebted to the Twitter community for puzzling over this as much as I have, for sifting through the snippets of clues, for not giving up at dead ends, for inspired thinking, for batting ideas around amongst themselves and for tracing further links and glimpses of our rogue, perhaps even in the guise of one of the founders of a series of Italian schools set up in Alexandria in 1899. The story is incomplete and quite frankly there is no evidence Dr Augusto Diamanti is the same as the graffiti artist, but for me, it was more about the joy at puzzling at the riddle with others, spotting links and that great moment when a search pops up with the name you want, in the place you want it, and at the time in history that you’d hoped for. I am walking away for the time being, like an impetuous child with an unfinished jigsaw left on the table but am sure some more fragments will fall into place by the hands of others, or mine, when I find a moment to exercise my curiosity again.

Credit where it is truly due. None of these further ramblings would have come to fruition without the extraordinary help and perseverance of the contributing Tweeters, in particular @GuyChamberland who steered us off the religious path and onto the zoological one. But a huge personal debt of thanks is owed to @Llewelyn_Morgan, @RaphaelCormack, @NGrotum, @ceadela, @richarevans1, @stephenjenkin, @Christine_Mout, @zoe_troy, @Alden_Young, @ale_columbu and @grandma11143 for their patience and intellect as much as for their wit. The wit, it should be noted, came mainly from @BretsTypewriter who provided the takeaway joke.


After a long note on Augusto Diamanti, a short note on Mr Holroyd is required. He stood out for me as I thought I had two examples of his name: one from Seidenga and one from the temple at Kumma. My passing reference to him caught the eye of one intrepid tweeter, @RaphaelCormack, who instantly alerted me to other another example of his literal handiwork on a monument at Naga and perhaps Aswan too. I was disbelieving until I was showed a photograph of the example from Naga which used the same ‘type font’ as the one seen on the Kumma temple. Unbelievable! My Holroyd rogue was proving to be more villainous than I had thought. And then the same Twitter friend sent me something that suddenly rendered Mr Holroyd still faceless, but totally exposed. Fabulous. And a lovely coincidence that he was a fellow of the Zoological Society of London. Maybe he knew Dr Augusto Diamanti…

The revealing link I was sent can be found here.

And here is the face behind the Arthur Todd Holroyd name.