Solemnity and Play: the Mentality of the Smyrna Graffiti

Roger S. Bagnall (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World)

The excavation of the basement level of the basilica in the agora of ancient Smyrna (modern Izmir) in 2003 revealed well-preserved plastered walls with graffiti, perhaps the largest single assemblage of ancient graffiti known outside a religious context. These graffiti, which include a range of concerns, may be dated to the second century AD. A general description of their contents has been published in my Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East (2011), and a full publication is in preparation. This paper will focus on the inscriptions of the type “I love (a woman) whose number is 731,” using isopsephistic values of Greek letters to give a value equal to the sum of the values of the letters in the name. The absence of the woman’s name has been variously interpreted in studies of earlier texts with such isopsephisms, but always in isolation from any larger context. I describe the elements of the context that must come into play in interpreting these texts, including the other types of graffiti found with them.

Graffiti and ordinary writing during the Middle Ages

Paul Bertrand (Université Catholique de Louvain)

Common views of writing during the Middle Ages can be dispiriting: it is often said, for example, that writing was confined to a social or political elite. We all know that this view is a simplification, but how incorrect is it, exactly? What was the precise role of writers, and what was writing in the Middle Ages? Could ‘commoners’ participate, and how did they do so? Did circumstances change over time? These are some of the questions I would like to address in my paper, giving particular emphasis to medieval ‘graffiti’.

My paper begins by charting the evolution of writing, from Late Antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages. I argue that writing changed from being a social and legal tool during Late Antiquity, to a distant, almost sacred skill during the High Middle Ages (although this was not universal). By the close of the Middle Ages, writing was both an essential religious and economic skill. By the 13th and the 14th centuries, the use of writing had become so common that writing was no longer confined to a scribal class: it stood alone. By the end of the Middle Ages, the ability to write was no longer sufficient to guarantee special status.

Evidence for this transformation comes from the writings of common people: clerks, craftsmen, soldiers. Such ‘ordinary documents’ are identified by their palaeography, which does not fit the standard typology. Scattered evidence is found on paper or parchment, on wax tablets, epigraphic documents and graffiti. The central part of my paper will focus on medieval graffiti from the High and Low Middle Ages. The examples come mainly from the Low Countries and France, but I will include others from the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. I will try to identify authors for these graffiti, linking them to other ‘ordinary documents ‘. I will study the social context of these authors and, if possible, qualify their status as literati, illiterati or something between the two.

My study will be rooted in anthropology, in order to qualify the nuances of the so called « great divide » between oral and literate cultures.

Local Cults, Pilgrimages, and Religious Life: Christian inscriptions in the Theban Mountain

Alain Delattre (Université Libre de Bruxelles)

Written mainly in Greek and Coptic, the Christian graffiti in Egypt are found in many sites, especially in churches and monasteries, but also in natural environments and on ancient monuments. They often appear in clusters in connection with some landmark, such as a tombstone or sacred place. Several hundred texts have been edited, but thousands remain unpublished. Christian graffiti may be very short and often consist of a single name. Many texts ask the reader to pray for the author or to preserve his memory. We also find invocations to God and saints, as well as demands for blessing or protection.

The presentation will focus on the graffiti of the Theban Mountain. There we find about 300 Christian graffiti, especially in a few locations, with up to seventy inscriptions on a few square meters. Some cases of social competition as well as group cohesion can be identified. When pilgrims visit a place, they write usually their names in the same place. In this case, one person can write for the others. The same individual can also write more than one graffiti in one place, sometimes some years after he wrote the previous ones, when he has progressed in his career.

Usually, graffiti are written in open spaces, even being made deliberately conspicuous to draw attention. In cases where inscriptions appears to have been intentionally hidden, explanation is also required. Cryptographic inscriptions in the Theban Mountain can also be questioned within this framework.

Verses on walls in medieval China

Glen Dudbridge (University of Oxford)

As the forms and range of their contemplative poetry grew to maturity, the Chinese scholarly elite took to brushing verses on the walls of buildings where society moved and gathered – temples, monasteries, bridges, places of entertainment, above all government hostels strung out along the empire-wide communication routes. The inscriptions were ephemeral, like the buildings themselves, and are no longer physically there to be read. Yet a rich literature of this verse does come down to us, since revellers or travellers were often so attached to verses they had read or written on the walls that they would copy them for handing down in paper transmission. This was a reflective literature, overwhelmingly locating the writer in a physical or social setting that called forth an inner response. It was also a self-conscious literature, aware of its own ephemerality as buildings fell into disrepair over time, or swiftly-changing careers brought writers into new contact with walls they had inscribed in earlier years. And it has now become a literature that modern scholars in China treat as a discrete branch of their poetic heritage. One has compared it to the worldwide web for its convenience of access and response, browsability, and rapid impact. So fine lines by great poets would go viral on walls from one end of the empire to another. Yet equally, anonymous individuals (including women) would find here a public outlet for their personal situations and emotions. This was a culture that we in the modern world can recognize.

Graffito as performance? Graffiti-writing and personal, ritual practice in Egyptian temples.

Elizabeth Frood (University of Oxford)

Figural and textual graffiti are attested in Egyptian temples for almost all periods, the most well-known and best-studied being those of Graeco-Roman date. This paper begins by surveying the range of temple graffiti in terms of context and content, focusing in particular on material datable to the second and early first millennia BC. While discussions of demotic, Greek, and Coptic graffiti have often productively focused around the changing meaning of sacred spaces in the late first millennium BC and early centuries AD, earlier material foregrounds the institutional character of some graffiti-writing as an accepted mode of personal and group display in sacred environments. I explore implications of graffiti for such self-fashioning through the lens of performance, assessing how far they can be construed as devotional and ritual acts or events both in the process of their creation and via later engagement. My case-studies come from temples in the Theban area, in and around modern Luxor, and range from signed, dated images of cult objects carved in otherwise undecorated spaces to inscriptions added to primary temple decoration. In particular I treat distinctions between hiddenness and visibility, the interplay of text and image, and the relationship of graffiti to other traditional forms of non-royal self-presentation such as stelae and statues. Such topics open up diverse possibilities for considering what different types of graffiti might do and mean for the busy, bustling lives within a temple.

Early Modern Wall-Writing

Susanna Gebhardt (University of Geneva)

The topic of my paper is wall-writing — meaning any form of writing that found itself attached to a wall — in early modern England. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wall-writing occurred within churches, on streets, in theatres, in prisons, in kitchens, in painted closets and great halls, and seemingly anywhere that alcohol was vended and imbibed meaning England (London, particularly) was a profoundly scripted environment.

Writing was executed directly upon the wall, as well as printed or written on a page before being pasted, nailed, or in some way affixed to a wall. The corpus consisted of sentences taken from the Bible, classical sententiae, bar tabs, challenges, advertisements, song-verses, names, drawings, weather reports, coats of arms, prayers (apostrophic invocations such as the plague marker ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us’), or insults. This wall-writing was tolerated by authorities, except for when the content itself was deemed offensive, which makes wall-writing distinct from post-Romantic English conceptions of graffiti, a nineteenth-century term used to define ancient parietal writing, that later gave way to a meaning of writing that was transgressive by dint of it being on a wall. (In other words, parietal writing was not yet considered a scourge on the cityscape.)

The writings that appeared on walls defy neat generic classification; there were not set categories of parietal writing, as much as there were people who used parietal writing differently. My paper will examine two different forms of wall-writing. I attempt to make a distinction between a wall-writing that was intentionally mnemonic and another that was considerably more impetuous and ephemeral, using examples from the late sixteenth century.

Miraculous Image and The Living Rock: Event and Deep Time at Anatolian Rock Reliefs

Ömür  Harmanşah (Brown University)

Rock reliefs and inscriptions of the Anatolian peninsula dating to the Late Bronze, Early and Middle Iron Ages (ca. 1400-700 BCE) have long drawn the attention of early modern travellers, antiquarians and scholars who traversed Anatolian landscapes in the hope of understanding its ancient past through its ruins. These rock monuments therefore constitute the foundations of scholarly engagement with ancient Anatolian landscapes while rock relief sites act as anchoring points linking textual accounts to real topographies in the configuration of Anatolian historical geography. In the context of the Hittite Empire and its aftermath, rock monuments have more recently been integrated to the territorial network models of empire (Glatz and Plourde 2011). Despite the diversity among the siting, iconographic and epigraphic content and the general configuration of such monuments, contemporary scholarship has portrayed them largely as stand-alone commemorative monuments of the imperial elite that were used to mark and appropriate colonial landscapes and borderlands. Based on my recent field work at these sites, I argue that rock relief sites are places of long term engagement for human communities at geologically wondrous locales such as springs, caves, sinkholes, and cannot be reduced to single inscription events.

When studied closely, each site presents a unique landscape context and a place-specific set of political, cultic and material practices that cluster around them. In this paper, I present three distinct lines of argument in order to develop a locally engaged understanding of such sites as archaeological places. In the first, I present evidence to suggest that many of the rock relief sites are constituted by multiple image-making, inscription and re-inscription events for example. This is a globally well-known but traditionally ignored aspect of places of commemoration such as İvriz and Sirkeli in south central Turkey, Karabel in western Turkey, Nahr el-Kalb in Lebanon or Kurangûn in western Fars province, Iran. An archaeological approach requires us to engage with all aspects of material practices at the site of rock monuments from a diachronic perspective, highlighting the cultural biography of places without prioritizing any “originary” moments of creation. Secondly, I focus on a series of Anatolian rock inscription sites of the Hittite Empire period, namely Suratkaya on Mt. Latmos, Beyköy Yumrukkayalar in the Phrygian highlands, Taşçı and Malkaya in Cappadocia to suggest that such sites completely lack any form of monumentality that is conventionally attributed to them and are more closely associated with graffiti. Departing from this body of archaeological, epigraphic and visual evidence, I draw attention to a series of ritual and administrative texts from Hittite Anatolia to suggest that images carved on the living rock may be understood as a visual form of capturing miraculous aspects of a particular holy place where communication can be established with the world of ancestors and divinities of the underworld. In this last section, I draw comparisons to miraculous apparition sites of Virgin Mary in early modernity, when such sites are transformed into places of healing and pilgrimage while they also host politically charged practices of image-making.

Works cited

Glatz, Claudia and Plourde, A.M.; 2011. “Landscape monuments and political competition in late Bronze Age Anatolia: an investigation of costly signalling theory” Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental Research 361: 33-66.

Arabic Graffiti in the Middle East: a return to the first hours of Islam

Frédéric Imbert (Aix-Marseille University)

Modern research in the field of Islamic graffiti of the first two centuries AH in the Middle East (7th and 8th centuries A.D.) is adding to our knowledge of Muslim society at the dawn of Islam. These “Kufic” graffiti are engraved primarily on rocks in the steppe areas or on the walls of antic or Islamic monuments (such as Petra, Jerash, and Palmyra). For many years, Islamic graffiti have not attracted the interest of Arab and Western researchers. This is probably because their aesthetics and content were underestimated. In a way, interest Arab and Islamic graffitiology is a recent development. However, the dating of texts from the 1st / 7th century remains problematic; it must be based on rigorous palaeographic analysis. Most of the information in the graffiti concerns the Islamic faith, and the place of the Qur’ân and Prophet Muhammad. The oldest graffiti also allow us to reflect on the status of writing during this period. The study of archaic religious formulae, such as professions of faith, gives us a new picture of the dawn of Islam. The picture does not conform precisely to that of the narrative classical tradition. Islamic graffiti reflect a very simple and materialistic tribal monotheism. As for what we call “The Qur’ân of Stones”, it seems to differ from the text of the Qur’ân as known today. Finally, the absence of quotations of the prophet Muhammad in the oldest graffiti demonstrates the historical and religious challenge of this epigraphic study.

Writing and image making practices in the Meroitic world: contextualising the graffiti of Musawwarat es Sufra, Sudan

Cornelia Kleinetz (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

The Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es Sufra, a labyrinthine sacral building complex covering c. 45,000 m2 and comprising temples, other buildings, ramps, corridors and courtyards, not only is unique in its composition and layout, but also lacks the standard primary decorative programmes that characterise other monumental buildings of the Meroitic period (c.300BC-AD350). Instead, ‘secondary decoration’ in form of thousands of incised pictorial and inscriptional graffiti, many of these dating to the Meroitic period, abounds on the site’s numerous sandstone walls. This rich graffiti corpus is currently subject to an in-depth contextual study, after individual graffiti had long been (ab)used in supporting one or another interpretation of the Great Enclosure or parts thereof. The unclear function(s) of the site and the diverse nature of the graffiti are raising a host of questions as to authorship as well as graffiti making contexts and practices in synchronic and diachronic perspectives.

Questions addressed in the project, among others, concern:

  • relationships between graffiti writing, image making and the appropriation of architecturally framed space (i.e. the Great Enclosure of Musawwarat es Sufra),
  • access to writing- and various image-based literacies reflected in the graffiti corpus of Musawwarat es Sufra, parts of which seem derived from ‘official’ or ‘elite’ art and other parts of which find parallels in ‘inofficial’ or ‘folk’ art, such as rock art, in the Meroitic world and beyond,
  • roles of images and image making as well as of inscriptions and writing in in the expression of individual and group concerns and identities in the Meroitic world,
  • definitions of and distinctions between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’, ‘official’ and ‘inofficial’, ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ art and writing, and therefore our very understanding of the term ‘graffito’.

Lapidarias litteras scio: literacy, graffiti, and their uses in the towns and deserts of pre-Islamic Arabia

Michael C.A. Macdonald (Khalili Research Centre)

The name ‘Ancient North Arabian’ refers to a group of dialects and scripts widely used in pre-Islamic Arabia between roughly the mid-first millennium BC and the fourth century AD. While some of these were used for monumental inscriptions and graffiti by the settled populations, in and around oases such as Dadan and Tayma, others were used by the nomads who covered the desert rocks from southern Syria to the borders of Yemen with their graffiti. This paper will explore the different uses which the settled peoples and the nomads made of graffiti and what these tell us of their different attitudes to literacy and the uses of writing. It will also contrast these with a third group, those who used the Nabataean script to write graffiti in the same areas. In doing so it will try to address some of the core questions of the conference such as:

  • ‘How graffiti in a natural environment differ from those in a man-made’ one,
  • ‘Are graffiti always … addressed to a wide public’ or ‘can one write for oneself alone?’, and
  • ‘How can graffiti have been used as testimony to literacy skills and the diffusion of literary culture within a society?’

Visitors‘ graffiti of ancient Egypt – graffiti in the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dahshur and graffiti in the Memphite necropoleis as a case study

Hana Navratilova (Metropolitan Museum of Art Dahshur Project)

In earlier taxonomy of ancient graffiti, terms like intrusive texts or secondary, unplanned, even parasitic texts may be encountered. More recently, ancient graffiti have been better understood as a rich and diverse cultural practice of the ancient world, which in most instances lacked the illicit character typical for more modern graffiti productions. One of the key approaches to the ancient graffiti consists of site- and time-specific and culturally sensitive contextualisation of the texts. A specific graffiti category, visitors’ graffiti of ancient Egypt, was left on walls of numerous monuments, chiefly temples and tombs, by generations of visitors. The visitors’ graffiti most probably flourished mainly in the New Kingdom, and specifically in the Eighteenth Dynasty. To our present knowledge, they appear in the cemeteries of Memphis, Thebes, Assiut and Beni Hasan.

In some instances the texts were added centuries, even more than a thousand years, after the host monument had been built. Some specific aspects of the collective mentality and culture of New Kingdom Egypt might have been articulated in the graffiti. It seems likely that inscriptions on monuments of a relatively distant past could have expressed elements of historical awareness, literate culture and religious concern, and that the elements in question could have been adroitly mixed in graffiti to answer requirements of self-fashioning of Egyptian elites.

Located between Giza and Maidum in Egypt, there are four major monuments with visitors’ graffiti. They are the pyramid complex of Sahure in Abusir, the Step pyramid complex of Djoser in Northern Saqqara, the pyramid complex of Senwosret III in Dahshur and the pyramid complex of Sneferu in Maidum. The graffiti texts in the pyramid complexes are often dated to the reign of Thutmose III or the joint reign of Thutmose III and Hatshepsut.

The graffiti found in the four locations convey messages with a wide scope, concerning writers, as well as their audiences. The texts are also rather suggestive of contemporary understanding of the space they were produced within. We can identify recognition both of sacred spaces, and of historical significance of the visited building, specifically in the graffiti within the complex of Senwosret III. Since the visitors had frequently recognised the character of the building – a sacred space with a funerary significance, they were likely capable of decoding some of the signs that surrounded them.

The graffiti were apparently a trace of direct interaction with a recognised monument of the past, moreover with a monument, which contained a wealth of symbolic messages concerning religion and kingship. Yet graffiti are also part of an edifice, and the graffiti location is an important source for the archaeological history of the building. The Memphite graffiti analysis addresses mainly the issues of space appropriation, while recognising also the questions of group identity of the graffiti writers, temporality and manuscript culture, especially as they appear to have been extremely closely related in the visitors’ graffiti.

A Witness to History: Classic Maya Graffiti from Tikal, Guatemala

Elizabeth Olton (University of New Mexico)

Imagery produced by the ancient Maya during the Classic period (C.E. 250-900) is extraordinarily diverse in context, form, and medium. State-sponsored or official Maya portraits and narrative scenes depict a stylized world that was expertly orchestrated for the public to view.  These works were carved in stone or wood, painted in mural form or molded in plaster. In sharp contrast to the more canonical official imagery, ancient Maya informal art, or what is known of as graffiti, was scratched in plaster on the walls of interior spaces.  In these close and more private environments, Maya imagery changed, as is seen in the haphazard compositions rendered in an expressionistic style. Portraits look more like caricatures and narrative scenes appear like a group of cartoon stills. In this context, realism and “beauty” have given way to quickly documenting what was seen and experienced by the artist.

The Great Plaza is considered Tikal’s ritual center. The plaza is framed on the north by a royal necropolis and on its southern end by the palaces of elites, a series of compounds known as the Central Acropolis. The volume and mass of the Central Acropolis once dominated the plaza, while its terraces and graduated stairways afforded a stadium-like view of the performances below in the plaza. The walls of these elite domiciles became canvases for inhabitants to recreate and interpret state-sponsored events. Tikal is known for its graffiti. Some of the largest concentrations of this informal art are found in the Central Acropolis. Images of ritual and elite architecture are the dominant themes of this imagery, interestingly written inscriptions were seldom included in informal works. In one example the same ritual may have been illustrated multiple times. When considered as pictorial eyewitness accounts, these scenes are valuable today because they provide a rare view of Classic period Maya agency.

Although ancient Maya graffiti is documented in the literature and described in field reports, it has not received the same scholarly attention as the official public art. Maya graffiti has been interpreted as the musings of people in a trance or the work of children. The subjects of graffiti are read as arcane and their function and meanings opaque. In contrast to this previous treatment I will explore the graffiti of Tikal as personal records of history created by an untrained hand contemporary with the scenes that are depicted. Like other graffiti the world over, these informal images may have also functioned as political commentary. An interpretive approach that affords an independent voice to these artists raises larger questions about ancient Maya society and provides the modern scholar with a more nuanced view of societal relations not commonly read in public imagery and hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Pilgrims, Sailors, and Calligraphers: Graffiti in the Indian World and Beyond

Richard Salomon (University of Washington)

Ancient graffiti in Sanskrit, Prakrit and other Indic languages have survived in great numbers both within the Indian subcontinent and beyond it. For the most part they record the names, and also frequently the desires and intentions of their authors, who are typically pilgrims (Buddhist and Hindu/Brahmanical) or other travellers. Several sacred sites contain huge numbers of inscriptions in the form of pilgrim’s records, recording the names of persons who visited (xxx iha prāptaḥ, “So-and-so arrived here”) or prayed (xxx praṇamati, “So-and-so bows”) there.

Besides casual, often crude graffiti, such pilgrims’ and travellers’ records are often written in highly ornate scripts, some of which are so stylized that they are indecipherable. Such material illustrates the development of the art of calligraphy in India, which otherwise is very sparsely documented.

Graffiti are particularly valuable in revealing the routes of pilgrims, merchants, and other travellers. For example, huge numbers of graffiti, often accompanied by Buddhist symbols and drawings, have been discovered in recent decades along the valley of the Indus and other rivers in far northern Pakistan. This material illustrates the trade routes through the high mountains between South and Central Asia, which were instrumental in the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. Similarly, the recent discovery and publication of some two hundred Indian inscriptions of the early to mid-first millennium C.E. in a cave on the island of Socotra (Yemen) sheds a wealth of light on the maritime trade between India, the Arabian peninsula, the horn of Africa, and the Mediterranean world.

Methods to their madness? Deciphering mortuary graffiti of ancient Jews and their Levantine neighbors

Karen B. Stern (Brooklyn College of the City University of New York)

Graffiti associated with ancient Jewish populations have been discovered throughout the Mediterranean in the Levant, Egypt, Turkey and Greece, Rome and Malta. Settings of these graffiti vary wildly: some examples mark spaces explicitly dedicated to Jewish use, such as synagogues and cemeteries, while others adorn pagan sanctuaries and civic spaces, such as public markets and theatres. To the few who know of their existence, these markings have seemed unworthy of excessive attention. No synthetic works of ancient Jewish, Roman, or Byzantine history mention them at all.

My research suggests, by contrast, that readings of these neglected graffiti, as informed by methods current in anthropology, spatial and landscape theory, reveal otherwise undocumented activities Jews once conducted throughout the ancient world. Only graffiti, for example, can reveal that some Jews acclaimed deity in spaces conventionally reserved for pagan worship. They demonstrate that acts of carving graffiti constituted devotional practices for some Jews, inside pagan sanctuaries and synagogues alike. Presence of graffiti in burial caves throughout the Mediterranean suggests, moreover, that many Jews practiced forms of commemoration that flagrantly contradicted those prescribed by some contemporaneous rabbis. Finally, however, graffiti can also attest to relationships between Jewish and neighboring populations; these markings, alone, can illuminate the functional coexistence of Jews and Christians in late antiquity in towns where writers specifically attest to their antipathy. Analyses of these neglected graffiti thus have the capacity to illuminate elusive features of ancient Jewish history and to shed new light on relationships between Jews and their pagan and Christian neighbors throughout the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine worlds.

But many of these graffiti, particularly those found in mortuary contexts, form an unruly lot. Some texts are written backwards. Some consist of single or clustered letters. Others appear to record ‘gibberish’—otherwise unknown combinations of letters, shapes and words. Such textual graffiti reflect only partial engagement with ‘literate’ culture and pose challenges to their meaningful interpretation. In this paper, however, I suggest that these types of graffiti are just as important as ‘conventional’ textual graffiti and, in particular, contribute to the improved understanding of mortuary practices in the Graeco-Romant Levant, among Jews and non-Jews alike. By examining the contents and patterns of graffiti scratched into the walls of one burial cave from the Judean foothills (Shefelah), I shall demonstrate why binary approaches to graffiti (e.g., differentiating between the iconographic and the textual, the ‘normative’ and the aberrant) is detrimental to their analysis and emphasize the importance of considering both the contents and spatial contexts of graffiti for their collective interpretation. Moreover, I challenge the traditional privileging of textual markings. In so doing, I raise questions that relate to the core issues of the workshop, such as: How do graffiti demonstrate varied efforts to appropriate mortuary space? Who is the anticipated audience of graffiti in mortuary contexts? On whose behalf and, to whom are these texts inscribed? To what extent do these graffiti document individualized sentiments, rather than stylized acts? Can modern viewers accurately identify the religious and cultural identities of graffiti inscribers? Finally, how do considerations of inverted texts, so-called ‘gibberish’ inscriptions, and images, collectively challenge conventional understandings of literacy in the ancient world?

In past decades, studies of burial and commemorative practices in Judea have remained largely limited to surveys of epigraphic and archaeological evidence. This paper suggests that cross-disciplinary methodologies, applied to the interpretation of graffiti, reveal previously unrecognized commemorative practices, which Jews and their neighbors once conducted for their dead throughout the Graeco-Roman Levant.

Desert inscriptions in Ancient Egypt: fieldwork in mining and expedition sites

Pierre Tallet (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Rock inscriptions of the Pharaonic period have been left in many of the desert regions surrounding the Nile Valley. These inscriptions are particularly concentrated at two types of site: places for mineral exploitation such as quarries and mines on the one hand and places of passage such as desert roads on the other. In the former Egyptian workmen might spend several months extracting ores, building materials, or precious stones. Inscriptions appear at numerous sites for the mining of copper, gold and stone used in monumental building (such as greywacke) in the Eastern Desert, including the site of Wadi Hammamat, where nearly 2,000 inscriptions have been recorded. A great number of inscriptions are also present at the amethyst mines of the Wadi el-Hudi (c. 350 inscriptions), at the alabaster quarries of Hatnub (c. 300 inscriptions), and at the mines of the Sinai (c. 700 inscriptions). In the latter case this type of marking appear on noteworthy places in itineraries followed by the Egyptians, on their way to the mines, or along routes of commercial and military communication. Similar information can be derived from rock inscriptions at Sehel (c. 550 inscriptions), from most of those in Nubia and Sudan (c. 1000 inscription), from a number around Shatt el-Rigal (c. 250 inscriptions), from Ayn Sukhna and Mersa Gawasis Red Sea (c. 100 inscriptions), and from those recently identified in parts of the Western Desert between the Gilf el-Kebir and the oases of Dakhla, Kharga and Bahariya (c. 250 inscriptions). The complete corpus of material probably exceeds 6000 documents.

These inscriptions provide an important source for Egyptian history. Despite their remoteness and specificity, they can clarify the chronology of poorly-understood periods, as well as those well-served by other ancient documentation. The corpus is extremely varied, and the modern term ‘graffiti’ – with all its pejorative nuances – has a tendency to overshadow this fact. Some inscriptions were official markings of royal appropriation: such rock panels are engraved with the name of the king, giving his title, and presenting the image of a triumphant king against the potential opposition of local populations. In this case rock inscriptions differ from monumental stelae, which were also often erected at the same locations, only through the material on which they are written. Other rock inscriptions, often smaller, were engraved to commemorate private individuals or groups. These might evoke the protection of a local deity, or otherwise try to engage with future visitors. Between these two extremes, a range of ‘intermediate’ examples associate an official commemoration with the celebration of individual actions to the benefit of their writer, either through their placing or their layout and content.

The corpus of inscriptions from Sinai is one of the largest and most diverse both temporally and spatially.  It offers insights into the differing occupational signs left by royal workmen: those left to appropriate space, to commemorate royal achievements, to ensure the protection of specific local deities, and even to communicate with future generations.