Part I, Kilroy Was Here!
Part 2, Azzanathkona is coming!
Part 3, Temple of Palmyran Gods
Home Sweet Home
Imagine! You are sitting on a bench in the entrance hall of a grand mansion in Dura Europos one fine day, waiting for an audience with its noble owner, a man by the name of Lysias. Lysias traces his ancestry back to the time of the Seleucid kings who had ruled over Syria and eastwards in Hellenistic times. Even after the Parthians took control of the city (ca. 113 BCE), the family remained great landowners. An ancestor, Seleucus son of Lysias, had held the office of strategos (General of the City) in 33 CE, and a grandson of the same name was both strategos and epistates (chief magistrate) in 50 CE, both under Parthian rule, and his grandson -- conveniently named Lysias son of Lysias -- held the same positions in 136 CE, at the very time of the Roman conquest; and so on. As late as 200 CE, another offspring, Septimius Lysias (who had very recently become a Roman citizen) was also in office as the strategos of Dura. Well, empires come and go, but the family still rejoiced in the exhalted title of 'First and Most Honoured Friends and Bodyguards' of the King, a title dating back to the time of the Seleucids.
You get the picture. Wealth. Lineage. Class.
|South facade, House of Lysias (Block D1)|
And a house as big as a city block. Even if it's not much to look at now, you can still feel the size.
So, there you are, sitting in the hall of this home, waiting. Instead of twiddling your thumbs, you idly pick up a stylus or your knife, and -- what can be more natural? -- scratch your name into the wall of your host's house. Perhaps adding the words, 'Remember me!' (in Greek, the mnēsthē formula). That's what Addaios, Aisaos, and Areaios did, presumably while waiting to be admitted, and a fellow named Herakles, too. In all, eight different persons scrawled their names with 'Remember Me' on the walls of the entrance hall. Some visitors were perhaps more circumspect, writing Lysias' own name instead of their own: twice 'Lysias. Remember me!', once naming him in connection with an embassy, and another time recording the death of Lysias (or a family member of the same name). One uncharacteristic graffiti seems to give the prices of wine.
Why in the world would you deface the house of your powerful host in that way? Well, of course you wouldn't. And Dr Jennifer Baird, lecturer in archaeology at Birkbeck College (University of London), tells us why the scribblers didn't:
The scripts clustered in the entranceway ...would have been so unremarkable both in presence and formulation that the guest had no doubt that their actions would not be considered a defacement.... [T]hey were in visible places, and from the dated examples in other houses, it is clear some were allowed to remain as part of the fabric of the building for many years.Note, first of all, that in this super-rich household, no servant came along to scrub graffiti off or whitewash over them. Not in the grandest houses of Dura, like that of Lysias, nor in the meanest with just a few rooms.
Second, many names with 'Remember me!" were also found at Dura in the synagogue, the Temple of Azzanathkona, the Temple of the Palmyran Gods, and in other buildings, both sacred and secular, public and private. In sanctuaries, graffiti “frequently and appropriately appeared in places of intensified holiness”. There is no reason to assume that when the same formulations occurred in houses they meant anything different. Far from being casual, off-hand, or the result of boredom, such graffiti played a part in each building's social fibre.
[M]emorialising an individual on a house wall also –literally- cements that person into a relationship with that social group, a relationship that could further be recalled if the graffito was read aloud.The Writing on the Walls
At Dura, 22% of all graffiti (and there was an awful lot of it) was found in private houses. Put another way, archaeologists recorded graffiti on the walls of 36% of the 130 houses that they excavated.
|House. Room 23 (Block E4)|
These marks are part of the biography of the building....
The House of the Archives, aka House of Nebuchelus
Another very large, but not so grand house, practically covered in graffiti, is the House of Nebuchelus, named after its owner as identified by the graffiti itself. Almost 100 graffiti were recorded in the house, many clustered near the entrance (especially the 'Remember me!' texts) and in rooms opening off the main courtyard. The house, which was located in the old agora, had two attached shops which led into the building and four rooms with benches, perhaps indicating that it wasn't strictly private but also had a commercial use.
Graffiti included horoscopes, accounts, receipts and inventories, as well as drawings of a boat, a winged victory, and what looks almost like a child's drawing of the walls of the city (above).
Again in this house, the number and range of graffiti shows that graffiti were not just a casual scratch, nor an act of defacement, but one way the walls of the houses were active in the lives of their occupants, whether being used to invoke a god or to recall how much Aurelios owed you for those two jugs of wine.Neatly written on the walls, too (with script a centimetre or two high), was an inventory of textile items, records of shipments of grain and wool, and various calculations.
House walls were an available surface, one which could archive the information for easy use and reference, as well as displaying them, and even editing them, scratching off items that had been paid or dealt with. Parchments or papyri were expensive ... but house walls were ubiquitous and available for mark making.Given the size of his house, I wouldn't have thought that Nebuchelus was short of a bob or two. But we mustn't forget that he was a money-lender as well as a merchant: 'take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves' might have been his motto. I wonder if this part of the house was considered private in a family sense -- or, rather, private in a way that we would today understand and share with Mr & Mrs Nebuchelus? Such private-public shifting boundaries make it all the odder that horoscopes appeared on the same walls where calculations, inventories, and receipts were scribbled too.
A number of horoscopes were found scratched into the walls of this house, in the form of a circle divided into four quarters with diagrams of the horoscope, constellations and planets. These, in addition to providing dates for the texts and birthdates for some of those whose horoscope was read, show both people’s interest in divination, and function to place the individual whose horoscope is recorded and their life span in relation to the cosmos....
It also makes the persons who have their horoscopes scrawled on the wall a subject of conversation, and undoubtedly gossip. I would have thought you'd want to keep this information as private as possible -- lest your enemies learn your secret self and future; but, it seems, not at Dura. Horoscopes are relatively common, and some appear in (semi-)public places. Perhaps, Durenes had a different idea of public and private matters. It may be so. As Dr Baird describes it,
|House A, Room 1 (Block N8)|
But what deserves a special drum-roll is this graffiti from the house of Nebuchelus:
On the 30th day of the month of Xandikus of the year 550 (20 April 239), the Persians descended upon us.Perhaps it was only a spring raid, but it was the first inkling of the troubles to come and a fearful harbinger of the Persian attack that destroyed Dura-Europos just 17 years later.
Not all the horoscopes in Dura could have helped them then.
Sources: I would again happily thank Dr J. Baird for her help in pointing me to useful publications and photographic resources, as well as for getting me started on this fascinating topic. My warmest thanks, too, to Dr. Agnes Korn, Empirische Sprachwissenschaft, Universitaet Frankfurt a.M. and to Chris Bennett for their help on horoscopes, and to those who wrote in from Parthia-L@yahoogroups.com. In addition to sources mentioned in previous posts, I would cite the Cambridge History of Iran, on the Parthian period (pp. 716-718); and An Ancient Horoscope .
Top: Graffiti Sketch of a man (possibly armed with sword), scratched in plaster. Yale-French Excavations at Dura-Europos, 1929.441. Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.
Centre: Façade sud de la résidence de Lysias, en fouille ©MFSED; photo via AOROC.
Top left: Calendar illustrating (top row) seven planets or days of the week; (bottom row) the gods. Photo via B. Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, D-1. House, Room 21. South wall. Block E4.
Middle left: City wall and gate. Photo via B. Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, G-1. Block B-8, House 17: House of Nebuchelus. Shop on Main Street.
Lower left: Horoscope discovered by Jotham Johnson on a courtyard wall of a small house. Photo credit: Ancient Horoscope.
Bottom left: Forequarters of horse with heavy mane (surely not a lion), frontal face; beneath the animal, inscriptions, loose scratchings, feather designs and two inscribed tabulae ansatae. Photo via B. Goldman, Pictorial Graffiti, E-4. House A, Room 1 (Block N-8).
Updated 15 July 2013
Archaeologists have just reported discovering an immense quantity of Greek graffiti scrawled on walls in the agora of Izmir (formerly Smyrna) on the Aegean coast of Turkey.
|Two gladiators (provocatores?); small boy urinating on street|
There are many different figures in the graffiti, from trade ships to gladiators. There are also confessions; one read, “I love someone who does not love me.” One inscription read, “The gods healed my eyes, this is why I dedicate an oil lamp to the gods.” Another piece of graffiti read, “The one who ensouls,” which symbolized Jesus Christ in early Christianity. There are also riddles that have not yet been solved....
More news as I hear of it!
credit: for the report and illustration