BMCR 2022.11.11

Cultic graffiti in the late antique Mediterranean and beyond

, , Cultic graffiti in the late antique Mediterranean and beyond. Contextualizing the sacred, 11. Turnhout: Brepols, 2021. Pp. xx, 190. ISBN 9782503593111. €95,00.

Originating in a conference held in Bari in 2017, home of the Epigraphic Database Bari (EDB), this collection sets itself an ambitious goal: to discuss cultic graffiti across the late antique Mediterranean and beyond, into Nubia and Arabia. Surprisingly, the editors distance themselves from the ‘cultic’ element of the title when introducing the scope and sequence of the volume, noting that the majority of graffiti studied here——defined as “informal and personal texts placed secondarily on existing structures or on living rock” (p. xvii)—do not align with the communal and public practices usually associated with ‘cult.’ According to this understanding of the data, what the contributions to this volume examine is predominantly text-only ‘religious’ or ‘devotional’ graffiti: images are excluded on the grounds that broadly based analysis of the volume and distribution of pertinent imagery is still only in its early stages. While attention is briefly paid to Jewish and Islamic devotional texts, the volume focuses in the main on Christian graffiti practices over the period 300-1000 CE across the Mediterranean world, Arabia, and Nubia. As the cover blurb notes, Cultic Graffiti promises a series of site-specific windows onto the creation and presentation of informal and personal devotional texts in late antiquity and how the practices that characterise their production relate to the wider epigraphic and cultural milieux of the period.

Following an editorial introduction that outlines the book’s purpose and scope (pp. xvii-xx), Rebecca Benefiel establishes the template for devotional epigraphic practice in the pre-Christian Latin West by examining the inscription of graffiti in religious spaces in first century Pompeii (Chapter 1). Her subject is the textual dataset associated with crossroad and household shrines within the city. Created in private or communal sacred places—the lararia found in every home, shop, workshop, and tavern in ancient Pompeii (e.g., I.9.12, I.10.3, II.9, VII.6.38, VII.7.16, IX.13.1, 3); and the arae compitales and aediculae located at the intersection of major and minor thoroughfares across the city (e.g., I.11, II.4, 7a) – these texts act as labels that register the identities of those deities to which shrines or altars are dedicated and of those private individuals expressing their devotion in charcoal, ink, paint, or incised markings.

Two chapters survey clusters of Christian and Jewish graffiti found in the region traditionally known as ‘the Holy Land’ (Israel, Palestine, western Jordan, and parts of southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria) and Sinai. Marlena Whiting considers devotional texts inscribed in spaces designated as pilgrimage destinations (places connected to biblical events or holy people) or found along routes leading to such sites (Chapter 2). Demonstrating that Christian pilgrim graffiti reflect the pre-Christian practices examined by Benefiel, Whiting argues that these inscriptions constitute reflexive conversations mirroring content and expression, whether in relation to the use of textual formulae referring to the intercessory powers of the divine or saintly objects of devotion, and evidence exemplifying functional and experiential aspects of pilgrim spaces. Leah Di Segni examines four categories of Jewish devotional graffiti: proskynemata (reverent markings comprising personal names and/or appeals for remembrance or help); prayers or acclamations expressing tenets of Judaism; curses or blessings using petitionary formulae; and texts and/or pictures demonstrating apotropaic or protective functions (Chapter 3). Sites examined include the Cave of Elijah (Mt Carmel, Haifa), the Golden Gate (Temple Mount), the Tomb of the Prophets (Mount of Olives), and the House of the Menorah at Jerusalem; the spelunca duplex at Hebron, a basalt column at Aphek in the Golan, the synagogue of Rehov in the Beth Shean Valley, and the catacombs of Beth She’arim. Of note here is Di Segni’s emphasis on the complementarity of marking methods and textual formulae used by the inscribers of pagan, Christian, and Jewish devotional graffiti.

Francesco Guizzi’s study of Byzantine graffiti from Hierapolis in Phrygia focuses on devotional texts inscribed on a single contiguous space, the northern wall of the tomb of the evangelist Philip (Chapter 4). These graffiti present similar features to those dating from the early Christian era: names of the saint, God, Christ, the Lord, or Mary, Mother of God; and/or prayers addressed to the divine or the saint using familiar formulae. Moreover, Guizzi observes that, whether simple text-only inscriptions or messages combining formal expressions, the graffiti do not follow a homogenous pattern, including additional features such as abbreviations and alphabetic texts as well as markings of human figures or various shapes. So, too, the textual graffiti reflect the interdependence of linguistic developments like itacism, whereby the use of vowels and diphthongs reflect convergence of pronunciation towards post-classical Greek.

A second pair of chapters discuss late antique Christian graffiti found in the catacombs at Rome’s suburbium. Antonio E. Felle, one of the volume’s editors, outlines the evidence for tituli devotionis causa inscripti recorded in the EDB and Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae (ICUR) (Chapter 5). Over a period of six hundred years (fourth-tenth centuries), Felle observes the diachronic change in the function of the city’s subterranean cemeteries (in particular, the necropoleis under the Basilicas of St Peter and San Sebastiano fuori; the catacombs of Callixtus, Marcellinus and Petrus, Priscilla, Domitilla). In this light, Felle argues that the form and function of graffiti reflect the monumental transition from places of burial and commemoration to sites of pilgrimage and devotion, expressing a movement from acclamatory memorialisation of the dead to passionate imprecations for eternal life. Carlo Carletti traces the trajectory of Anglo-Saxon pilgrimage over a period of two hundred years (seventh to ninth centuries) by way of the exiguous corpus of runic inscriptions found almost exclusively in two sites at Rome, the shrines of Felix and Adauctus (Commodilla) and Marcellinus and Peter ad duas lauros (Chapter 6). Illustrating the traditional repertoire of devotional graffiti, —from the simple expression of personal names to more complex instances of augural, imprecatory, and scriptural/liturgical formulae, these inscriptions reflect the devotion of Anglo-Saxon pilgrims travelling great distances to visit certain sacred spaces where they could communicate with the divine and the saintly. Unlike graffiti using the familiar languages of the late antique Mediterranean, Latin and Greek, runic inscriptions indicate absence of the customary need to communicate with fellow pilgrims otherwise unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon script.

The chapters that follow deal with how and what devotional graffiti tell us about topics like the cult of the saints, pilgrimage, associational religion, and cult practices across a range of geographical regions. Jacques van der Vliet selects three groups of graffiti from Christian Egypt to interrogate the view that such inscriptions represent an interdependent dialogic network of communications in specific settings (Chapter 7). Drawn from the corpora of graffiti and dipinti marked in the monastic centres of Dayr as-Surian and Kellia and the funeral chapels of al-Bagawat in the Western Desert, van der Vliet contends that the devotional texts found in these places comprise a principal interlocutor (author and/or scribe), a particular spatial context, and a dual audience (God, the saints; the reader). Alain Delattre narrows the focus to examine the relationship between graffiti texts and the practices of cult in the rock monastery and limestone quarries located on the east bank of the Nile across from the village of Dayr Abū Ḩinnis (DAH) (Chapter 8). Guided by Arietta Papaconstantinou’s corpus of Christian Egyptian inscriptions, graffiti, and dipinti,[1] Delattre reviews the record of Coptic and Greek graffiti carved or painted on the rock surfaces of quarries converted into a church and several monastic hermitages. Graffiti scratched at the entrance to the church of the laura (DAH 012) corroborate the official inscriptions and painted legends which indicate that the space was dedicated to John the Baptist and various saints of Sketis. Other devotional texts confirm the usefulness of graffiti as sources of information on the religious practices of monks and the cult of the saints. Several graffiti and dipinti markings at the entrance of quarry DAH 033 identify the large communal space as the topos of St. Makarios, and invocations painted in blue and grey above a funerary inscription sculpted in quarry DAH 023 suggest the existence of a cult honouring the commemorated individual, the monk Apa Lots.

Pawel Nowakowski argues that graffiti texts of personal names and devotional invocations found at two locations on the Cycladic islands of Syros and Timos can help to answer questions about the identity, social background, and even motivations of the inscribers. Nowakowski’s analysis of the epigraphic dossier of persons, fact statements, and prayers reveals two inscribing populations: one of sailors and travellers, most likely pilgrims (port of Grammata, Syros); and the other of local islanders visiting a site for an independent religious purpose (the cave at Gastria/Kionia, Tinos). Efthymios Rizos considers the evidence provided in Christian graffiti to shed light on the limited visibility in monumental inscriptions and dedications of professional guilds and religious and charitable confraternities (Chapter 10). In doing so, Rizos contrasts the formal epigraphic record of late antiquity, which favoured the wealthy and powerful, with the corpus of devotional graffiti linked to barbers (Aphrodisias), builders (Viminacium in Moesia Superior, Constantinople), circus factions (Takina in Phrygia, Um al-Rasas in Jordan), and dekanoi (charitable confraternities, attested in Aphrodisias and Macedonia), and dipinti to hempworkers (Thessalonike), stonecutters (Peloponnese), and funerary colleges (Ephesos, Korykos in Cilicia).

The final case studies in this collection deal with religious graffiti from early Islam in Arabia and the Near East and from Christian Nubia. Frédérick Imbert bypasses traditional Arab and Islamic historiography and hagiography to gauge the usefulness of graffiti in illuminating the history of Islam in the first and second centuries AH (7th-8th centuries CE) (Chapter 11). Unaffected by linguistic, religious, or political emendation, graffiti engraved on rocks or the walls of ancient monuments, distributed along a north-south line along the trade routes of ancient Arabia (from Palmyra in Syria to Najrân in Saudi Arabia), add to our knowledge of the Muslim tradition, the figure of the Prophet (as person and messenger of God), to the place of Koranic quotations as privately available texts among the earliest Muslim community, and to the Arabic script and its origins. Adam Łajtar explores the substantial dataset of Greek, Sahidic Coptic, and Old Nubian graffiti in Christian sacred spaces south of the First Cataract in the Nile Valley over an extended chronological period (6th-15th centuries CE) (Chapter 12). From the extant catalogue of over two thousand items inscribed in large numbers at particular locations in Christian Nubia (Qasr Ibrim; the agglomeration of Faras; the church at Sonqi Tino; Dongola, capital of Makuria; the upper church at Banganarti; and the monastery of Ghazali), Łajtar traces the form of the graffiti and dipinti: personal prayers naming the author, invoking a holy figure, and outlining a request. Based on the highly technical and formal standards of the inscriptions, which often display elaborate composition and sophisticated language, and the places in which they were carved or painted, Łajtar posits professional composers and ordinators, in all likelihood the clerics attached to the locations where the texts and figures are found, executing the well laid-out and visually sophisticated messages on behalf of visiting pilgrims.

Each editor contributes a final essay, reflecting on the nature of devotional graffiti and dipinti in late antiquity. Antonio E. Felle (Chapter 13) draws out the complicated status of these inscriptions—as “the most private form of ‘displayed texts’ and the most ‘public’ form of individual texts” (p. 178), stressing that graffiti produced devotionis causa were intended to last, carved or marked with paint, ink, chalk, or charcoal on durable surfaces in significant places with the consent of those who occupied or held authority over the sacred spaces where they were displayed. Bryan Ward-Perkins (Chapter 14) reinforces these views, observing that devotional graffiti demonstrate the sacrality of a place. Diverse in form and function, written by professionals or devotees, frequently male though occasionally female, these inscriptions addressed God or the saints, mortal readers collectively (whether contemporary or belonging to a future readership) or specified persons, asking for help, remembrance, forgiveness, mercy, or a particular need (e.g., good sailing). Naturally, the identity of the divine or mortal readership, the specific nature of desired outcome, and the category of sacred space associated with devotional graffiti depended on the religion associated with the graffiti (Judaism, Christianity, or Islam). Ward-Perkins is intrigued to find that graffiti writing and drawing was much more active in some areas and time periods (notably late antique Arabia and medieval Nubia) than in others. Surprising, too, is the almost universal resistance of named inscribers to specifying their place of origin and the absence of saints when compared with direct appeals to the divine.

This collection is an excellent overview of the stated subject of the volume. Until recently, scholarship of the ancient world has regarded the category of evidence comprising textual or pictorial graffiti more as illuminating the everyday lives of the non-elite rather than as important historical sources. This standpoint, if correctly identified, lays claim to a very particular idea of “history” and a corresponding perspective on the value of information from the quotidian past—in other words, data that refers to ideas, people, and events relating to ancient society or cultural matters. Such a limiting assessment of the worth assigned to ephemeral inscriptions can be—and, in this volume, is – contested. With respect to the evidence surveyed in Cultic Graffiti, “everyday” devotional epigraphy should be understood as providing a record of aspects of the late antique and early medieval histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and of associated urban and rural religious communities. In this regard, each chapter demonstrates how vernacular (and, infrequently, graphic) inscriptions may be regarded as valuable sources of information about the histories of discursive exchange and group identity, that is, preserving and transmitting elements of religious narratives, iconographies, and concepts regarded as essential to preserve; representing and memorialising a spectrum of residual traces that reflect the evolution of the Abrahamic religions from marginalised community beliefs and practices to established sites of prayer, pilgrimage, and practice.

The editors provide a list of illustrations and of standard abbreviations of frequently cited epigraphic corpora. Each chapter includes a bibliography of reference works.



[1] Papaconstantinou, A. 2001. Le culte des saints en Egypte des Byzantins aux Abbassides: l’apport des inscriptions es des papyrus grecs et coptes. Paris: CRNS.