Still More Graffiti in Dura Europos (3rd century CE)
Part I, Kilroy Was Here!
Part 2, Azzanathkona is coming!
In The Temple of the Palmyran Gods
This famous fresco from the north wall of the front room (pronaos) of the Temple of the Palmyran Gods was painted ca. 239 CE. It shows Julius Terentius, the tribune of the XXth Palmyrans, a cohort of mounted archers, offering incense to the statues of three Palmyran gods, all dressed in Roman military costumes -- Aglibol, Iarhibol, and Arsu (upper left); and to the gads, the protective goddesses of the cities of Palmyra and Dura-Europos (seated, lower left). Red flames rise from the golden incense burner. A standard bearer, facing Terentius, holds the regiment's colours: the banner is red, with a yellow border and fringes below; on top of the pole is a golden ring or crown. Behind Terentius stand some of his troops raising their right hands in prayer, their left hands on the hilts of their swords.
Although almost always shown alone -- as if it were a modern, framed painting in a museum -- this wonderful fresco was not alone on the north wall. Much the larger portion of the wall, in fact, was filled with other paintings and graffiti -- making up a strange, mixed bag of images and texts, both formal and informal. Early in the twentieth century, the excavators somehow lost track of most of the other frescos from the north wall -- and all the graffiti; the originals went walkabout and no one knows what happened to them (the Terentius fresco survived, having been sent to Yale University). Happily, a drawing of the wall still exists -- which gives a radically diverse impression of daily worship among those natives and foreigners, soldiers and civilians, who lived, traded, and fought in Dura.
But, first, where are we exactly?
|Upper left circle: Temple of Palmyran Gods|
The temple's plan (left) is typical of temples in the region, with rooms built around a courtyard. The inner sanctum (naos - room B on the plan, left) and front room (pronaos - room A) -- were built against the western ramparts of the city wall. The other rooms around the courtyard were used for worship, as banqueting halls, or to house the priests of the temple. Judging from a graffiti on the east wall of the pronaos, these priests came from local families. These same local families worshipped in the temple and paid for much of its adornment with wall paintings through the second century CE.
Terentius in Context
|Drawing of scenes on the north wall of the pronaos|
So it's time to examine the whole wall.
The scene closest to Terentius and his troops shows a young lad carrying a platter with food to an over-large goddess, with the halo of divinity, who reclines on a thick couch of plump cushions. To her left is a completely separate scene, only partially preserved, with four men making offerings on altars and incense burners. Below the four men is a row of separate pictures (from left to right): a man dressed very like Terentius, so perhaps he's another Roman officer, and a gowned woman thought to be the goddess Atargatis; next, a bearded man dressed in a cloak and a goddess (halo!); then, some animals -- a sheep or goat and a gazelle; and more figures, one of whom is the god Herakles with his club and lion skin. Although a bit crowded and uneven in their frames, the wall boasts a panorama of professionally-painted images, most probably of gods and goddesses worshipped in this part of the temple. So far, so normal.
The surprises are below, above, and even superimposed right on top of the paintings. First, as Prof. Heyn tells us:
Underneath these diverse scenes were painted the letters of the Greek alphabet. This seemingly random addition probably had religious connotations and may have been apotropaic [that is, to ward off evil]. Abecedaria, or alphabet inscriptions, are surprisingly numerous in Dura-Europos. Both Greek and Latin abecedaria have been found in houses, public structures, and in other sanctuaries in the city, most notably the Christian House Church and the Temple of Azzanathkona....Scribble, scribble, scribble
And so we return, willy nilly, to our subject of graffiti. The temple walls were literally covered with a multitude of scratched inscriptions and amateur drawings. Particularly thick on the western portion of the north wall, there are also many graffiti on the other walls of the front room and even within the inner sanctum. Most are written in Greek, and a few in Aramaic.
A long Aramaic graffiti (left), scrawled just to the left of the fresco was probably written by two different Palmyrans serving in the Roman army. More graffiti continues down and around this text with many other names and remembrance inscriptions, really rather like an early version of Facebook:
May Maliku the son of Wahballat be remembered before Iarhibol and [Aglibol] and Resu ...
... and made this good memorial and reward for them in fixing the painting
...the son of Baba, the son of ....
Wahballat before [the god] Iarhibol
May Ayeb be remembered
Someone also thanked the gods for having answered his prayers for more animals (could he have written it while gazing at the sheep/goat and gazelle on the fresco?). Still others scrawled their names within the paintings: on top of the panel of the four sacrificing men in the upper register, Taimarsu, engraver(?), the son of Taime wrote his name and trade; and Konon Nikostratou was there, leaving his name in Greek near the head of the soldier in the lower left-hand corner, repeating it twice to make sure everyone saw it.
I don't mean to sound facetious. It is hard for us today to take such scribblings seriously. In fact, the excavators originally assumed that the graffiti meant that the temple was derelict and almost abandoned at this time. But it wasn't. Several more graffiti scratched on the panels to the left of the Terentius painting give the dates 158 CE and 165/66 CE, so it's quite clear that, when the Terentius fresco was painted (ca. 239 CE), the adjacent scenes were already covered with graffiti.
Why place the scene of a very important officer in the corner of a wall covered in graffiti? If the location had bothered Terentius, he could have chosen a completely empty wall (there were several available). But he didn't: he was honoured in the corner of a wall that was filled with scenes in different sizes, and of different subjects, as well covered with an awful lot of graffiti.
He doesn't seem to have minded graffiti.
In fact, his fresco went right over some earlier graffiti (left). The artist-in-charge didn't even bother to smooth away the human figure (of a fighter?) scratched into the plaster of the wall: it still underlies the image of the very gad or Fortune of Dura! It seems certain that Terentius (and his men) did not view the graffiti as we do -- as disfigurement, even as vandalism -- but rather as a different kind of contribution to the life of temple walls. In short, as Dr Heyn concludes,
The adornment of the walls does not conform to the conventional idea of what is aesthetically pleasing; it results from a system in which all types of mural markings could function as votive offerings.
'Terentius in Context' leaves no doubt that those who scrawled graffiti in this temple, -- like those who wrote on the walls of the synagogue (Part I) and in Azzanathkona's temple (Part 2) -- were also active worshippers. No less than the individuals painted in the Terentius fresco, they shared in a continual presence within the sacred space. The decoration of the walls was changing and changeable. Professionally painted scenes, such as that of Terentius and his troops, were placed next to scenes covered with graffiti, even scratched on top of and underneath the paintings themselves. Paintings were not ornamental; they were votive, and so too were the graffiti:
It is more than likely that the graffiti functioned in the same way as the paintings, particularly those graffiti that recorded the name of the worshipper or the name of a god or both. The graffiti scratched throughout the painted decoration were not disfiguring and did not detract from the desirability of location, because they were also votive.Graffiti was everywhere at Dura-Europos ... in every part of the town, in public and in private places, in sanctuaries, in the fortifications, on gates, in shops, and houses.
Next post: leaving your mark in private homes.
* In (L.R. Brody and G. L. Hoffman, eds.) Dura Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity, Boston, 2011, 55-67. I am most grateful to the author for sending me a copy of her paper.
Sources are those listed in Parts 1 and 2.
Top: Julius Terentius fresco. Photo credit: University of Leicester.
Upper left: Magnetometry survey superimposed on the plan of the military base. After 'The Roman Military at Dura'; website of University of Leicester.
Middle left: Plan showing location of naos (A), pronaos (B), Temple of the Palmyrene Gods. After Downey, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture. Via M. Heyn, 'Terrentius in Context', Fig. 13.1 .
Centre: Drawing of scenes on the north wall of the pronaos. After Franz Cumont, Fouilles de Doura-
Europos (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1926), plate XLIX. Via M. Heyn, 'Terrentius in Context', Fig. 13.5.
Below left: Aramaic graffiti. From L. Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos, 1999, 307-8.
Bottom left: Graffito underlying the wall painting of Julius Terentius performing a sacrifice (detail, pl. 1931.386). (photograph by Jessica Smolinski, Documentation Photographer, Yale University Art Gallery). Via M. Heyn, 'Terrentius in Context', Fig. 13.9.