Making a Mark: Exploring the Archaeology of Modern and Ancient Graffiti

One interesting thing in Zimmerman’s article “Activism and Creating a Translational Archaeology of Homelessness” was that some homeless people use graffiti as social commentary and also express themselves by marking public spaces with signs of their heritage. Disappointingly, I could not find much information on the culture surrounding the graffiti of the homeless, (perhaps a new area for archaeology to explore!) but I did discover that people have been leaving their personal mark wherever they go since ancient times.

The best-preserved examples of ancient graffiti come from the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were buried after the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. One thing that seems clear (at least in these two cities) is that graffiti wasn’t surrounded by the same negative connotations of today. Common in the graffiti of these cities were advertisements and political campaigns, so we can infer that graffiti was more accepted in those times. Also found were doodles and random scrawls that people etched into public places to leave their mark. Much of the graffiti is not unlike some that you would see in a bathroom today, with name-calling and simple messages such as one inscription found in Pompeii that reads: “Gaius Pumidius Diphilus was here.” Clearly, putting our own personal stamp on our world, even if we think it will only be for a short while, is something that dates back to ancient times.

Graffiti of names found preserved in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum

In modern times, graffiti has an intense negative connotation and is seen as dirty, illegal, and disrespectful. However, modern graffiti is not just the vandalism that many think it to be. Of course, graffiti exists that is similar to Pompeii’s name-calling messages, but a lot of it can be considered art. Even “tagging,” or, spray-painting your name on a wall to mark your artistic territory, can be beautiful. In fact, some graffiti hangs in museums today, showing that the streets can be a canvas and graffiti is not simply vandalism. Also, as is mentioned in the Zimmerman article, a lot of graffiti today portrays the artist’s commentary on the social world around them. Perhaps we could learn a lot about a neighborhood from what kind of graffiti is present.

A modern work of street art demonstrating the use of social commentary in today’s graffiti

It may not seem like it, but graffiti has a lot to do with archaeology, and much of that connection is still left unexplored. Graffiti is by no means a modern invention, and, in fact, people have been writing similar things on bathroom walls for centuries. Throughout time, people have been doing graffiti in the hopes of leaving a permanent, or at least semi-permanent mark on their world to show that they were there, even if only briefly. Wanting to be remembered is a universal human trait, and by looking at graffiti, both old and new, through the lens of archaeology, we can help uncover how people attempted to immortalize themselves. Although graffiti is not something you can hold in your hand, it is just as telling about a society as ceramics or projectile points.



Baird, J. A., and Claire Taylor. Ancient Graffiti in Context. NY, NY: Routledge, 2011. GoogleBooks. Google. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. .

Patel, S. S. 2007. Writing on the wall: the graffiti archaeology project challenges the discipline of archaeology. Archaeology, 60(4): 50–53.

Pilny, Susanna. “Why Ancient Roman Graffiti Is so Important to Archaeologists.” Redorbit. N.p., 05 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Apr. 2017. .

Zimmerman, Larry J., Courtney Singleton, and Jessica Welch. “Activism and Creating a Translational Archaeology of Homelessness.” World Archaeology 42.3 (2010): 443-54. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.


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Nationalistic Nazi Archaeology

Everything the Nazis did can be attributed to them trying to prove that the Aryan race existed. To convince the educated and to further authenticity, party leaders actively targeted other educated people to provide this evidence. Thus, a variety of scholarly fields such as archaeology were turned into a source of informational aid to benefit Nazi ideologies.

Tenants of Nazi Archaeology

The Nazi researchers conducted all of their work under a certain nationalistic framework. They referred to the framework as the Five Tenants. The tenants are as follows:

  1. Kulturkreise (culture circles), which states that recognition of an ethnic region only comes from the materials excavated at the site.
  2. The social diffusion theory, which states that ideas are spread from the most advanced culture to the least advanced culture.
  3. Deutsche Reinheit (the pure German man), which states that Germans were “pure Aryans.” 
  4. Weltanschauungswissenschaften (world view sciences), which says that culture and science are one and they carry race-inherent values.
  5. Secrecy. The last tenant was secrecy because these ideas were never formally released to the public.

Hitler’s Archaeologists

The elite Nazi research group that upheld the five tenants was formed in 1935, before the major outbreak of World War II. Led by Gestapo and SS officer Heinrich Himmler, the Ahnenerbe was designed with the goal of unearthing new evidence of the accomplishments of the great Germanic ancestors. The name Ahnenerbe roughly translates to “something inherited from the forefathers”. As evident from just the name, the archaeologists were working under extreme nationalistic ideas. This nationalism led to extremely far-fetched historical conclusions. For example, the young researcher Assien Bohmers claimed he could trace Nordic origins all the way back to the Paleolithic era in Germany. When combined with the ideas of Kulturkreise and social diffusion, this would objectively name German Aryans as the dominant culture and entitle them to huge portions of already owned land. 

The insignia for the Ahnenerbe.

Bohmers digging in Czechoslovakia.

Battling Nationalistic Archaeology

The construction of a national past should not be made at the expense of abandoning the knowledge of our shared past. A national past should also not be simply created for the purpose of future goals; all cultures and traditions should be recognized as a worthy study. The Ahnenerbe twisted their research in order to twist the history of Germany so the Nazis could have justified actions. If archaeologists today can move forward while trying to free their research from any social theories built into a society (such as the five tenants), then the history will be reported accurately and honestly. It is up to archaeologists today to respect the past in order to respect the future.

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Unearthing Treblinka: Archaeology as a Tool to Restore Memory

During WWII, over 900,000 Jewish deportees were killed and buried at the Treblinka death camp in Poland. The Nazis left Treblinka in 1943, but not before knocking down all buildings and leveling the earth. They then built a farmhouse on the stripped land, planted trees, and installed a Ukrainian farmer on the area. An investigation of German crimes in 1946 found the remains of burnt posts, foundations of a building and well, and sections of paved road. The investigation also discovered human remains buried in the ground. However, none of this information alluding to the site of a mass murder was reported to the public. Despite witness testimonies supporting the concept of a mass grave at Treblinka, the reported lack of physical evidence failed to produce further investigation.

This aerial photo from 1943 following Treblinka’s closure shows an empty area of land, apart from the farmhouse at top left. Archaeologists have found that the farmhouse was in fact constructed using bricks from the dismantled gas chambers.

These German crime investigation reports remained the most complete studies of Treblinka until 2010, when a team of archaeologists began working on the area. In order to respect Jewish law and tradition banning the exhumation of the dead, they did not excavate the area. Instead, the team uses noninvasive technologies such as aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar, GPS, and lidar. These methods have identified the traces of probable undressing barracks, gas chambers, and burial/cremation pits. One of the burial pits found was recorded as 26 meters long, 17 meters wide, and 4 meters deep. Five more pits of similar sizes are located nearby, each revealing the massive scale of the atrocities committed at the site.

Surface survey has also found items on the ground surface at Treblinka, including human bone, which correlates to witness testimonies of improvised cremation methods. According to survivors, the camp did not decide to cremate bodies until it had been open for several months, and due to a lack of a purpose-built crematorium, they began burning bodies on makeshift pyres. These cremation results would not have eradicated bone, which has resulted in the presence of bone fragments at the site. Personal and everyday items have also been found at the site by means of surface survey.

A photo of the current memorial at Treblinka commemorating the 900,000 Jewish people who were killed at the site.

Treblinka was not the only death camp left empty by the Nazis. Two other camps in Poland, Bełżec and Sobibór, were also razed completely after their closures. For this reason, these camps have receded into the historical background compared to Auschwitz, which was discovered with gas chambers still standing and thousands of prisoners still alive. The Nazis also destroyed all written records, leaving the only source of evidence of the mass murders at these sites as witness testimony. Until this project, it seemed that Treblinka and its memories had been wiped off the face of the earth. The work of the archaeological team at this site demonstrates the power of archaeology to at least partially bring back lost knowledge and memory. The team is planning on long-term collaboration with the Treblinka museum in order to continue unearthing new physical evidence at the site and to allow the victims to be properly commemorated.



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Impact of the Nile River on Ancient Egypt

In the thousands of years after the end of the last Ice Age, North Africa had a much wetter climate than it does today. Over time, the climate became drier as the wetlands turned into the Sahara Desert we know today. The land became dry and difficult for human societies to live in. In the midst of the desert, however, was a flowing river called the Nile.

The Nile supported and allowed life to thrive in the grueling climate. The earliest inhabitants along the river found that the river provided many sources of food, and more importantly, discovered an annual 6 month period where the Nile flooded. The brown layer of silt that the Nile left when it receded was full of nutrients that allowed for farming to occur. Through the use of irrigation canals, agriculture was born which paved the way for the emergence of Egyptian civilization.

This painting depicts the vitality the Nile River brings to the arid climate. Without it, Egyptian civilization could not have existed.

The inhabitants utilized the Nile to adapt to the changing environment. Instead of roaming the land, they saw the opportunity the Nile provided them through agriculture. Similar to how the Mayans developed Neolithic techniques through maize, beans, and squash in the tropical climate of Guatemalan rainforests, early Egyptians were able to grow wheat, beans, and cotton on the banks of the Nile. By determining when the Nile flooded, the river proved to be a sustainable way to live life.

The flooding of the Nile was not a perfect occurrence. This gave rise to the belief in the gods and a highly stratified social structure. At the top of the social structure were gods such as Ra and Osiris because the Egyptians believed that they controlled the universe. The Egyptians tried their best to please the gods because if they were happy, then the Nile would flood producing an abundance of crops and preventing famine. After the gods came the pharaohs in social status. The Egyptian people believed the pharaoh to be a god in mortal form. They had absolute power over the dominion which required protection through the help of government officials and soldiers. The rest of the people’s status went in the order of scribes, merchants, artisans, farmers, and finally slaves.

This wall painting depicts the King Tutankhamen with Egyptian gods Anubis and Nephthys. King Tutankhamen ruled from 1333- 1323 BCE.

This social stratification was necessary for a civilization as large as ancient Egypt to function. Slaves were utilized to build infrastructure, farmers produced the food for the society, and the other social levels contributed by either governing, defending, or producing commodities for the civilization. Social mobility was possible in ancient Egypt though. Sending sons to schools to learn how to read and write could make it possible for them to become a scribe, boosting social status.

Ancient Egyptian civilization was created and greatly influenced by the Nile River. The flooding of the Nile was sustainable but not perfectly reliable, creating the belief in gods and social stratification. The Nile River provided sustenance to Egypt for around 3000 years. In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and Ptolemaic period of Macedonian rule began.



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