When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, burying Pompeii and Herculaneum in fatal volcanic ash, the destructive process famously entombed the remains of residents and their material culture. It also, miraculously, preserved their social networks. Just as we DM each other or post to our friend’s Facebook pages today, residents of these ancient cities would take charcoal to a wall to leave a message, or simply scratch them in, line by line.
Since the 1800s, archaeologists have found several thousand examples of these notes at Pompeii, and hundreds at Herculaneum. They appear in public settings, left like latrinalia or tags, and even inside private houses. Scholars consider them an ancient form of graffiti, although these scrawls carried none of the stigma attached to contemporary scribbles and drawings. This graffiti served as an everyday form of communication and self-expression. Inscriptions have ranged from casual greetings (like a simple, “Hello to Primigenius!”) to cartoon-like drawings. The famous Herculaneum home known as the House of the Stags features several drawings of deer and columns that resemble the statues found in the house’s garden room.
“The first century AD was a time without easy and cheap access to writing materials, so the wall plaster served as a message board for the city,” Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons, assistant professor of classics at the University of Mississippi, told Hyperallergic. “People in Herculaneum used graffiti to keep track of things, much in the way we might use scratch paper today. Other times the graffiti express their thoughts and wishes.”
Read more: Hyperallergic