Towering Letters

A recent visit to the Tower of London gave me the opportunity to see yet more evidence of the importance of writing on walls, recording one’s life (or in this case, presumed death), and leaving a mark that says I was here, I mattered. I have written here before about the prevalence of this habit, one that seems to be fundamentally linked to human nature from the time some long ago ancestor first picked up an implement capable of leaving such a mark.

In this case, I am referring specifically to the numerous graffiti found inscribed on the walls of the Beauchamp Tower. This tower, originally built in the late thirteenth century, was used to house prisoners during the religious upheaval of the Tudor reign. The majority of the graffiti thus date from the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Two things in particular strike me about this particular collection of texts: the incredible detail of the work, and the effort it must have taken to render. See for yourself:

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There is something heartbreaking in the amount of time it must have taken to carve these inscriptions into the stone of the tower, which speaks to the length of time the people responsible for them must have been imprisoned. Whilst some are, like many of the Pompeian texts, simply a name, many are far more elaborate, consisting of deeply carved images, coats of arms, and texts recording some aspect of their life or situation. Many of these, like that of Charles Bailly (above, right) resemble something like an official looking document or text type, which is something that can also be found in Pompeian graffiti. Besides the elaborate nature of the texts, the depth into the stone to which some are carved is considerable.

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This again speaks to the length of time each graffito took to produce. Since a number of the individuals held in this tower were kept there for years, there certainly had ample opportunity to complete such time consuming work. But this also speaks to the attitude towards the act of writing on the walls: the gaolers allowed this to happen, and in some instances, may have actively encouraged it. One of the information placards on the ground floor of the tower actually states that one specific graffito was probably ‘carved with a knife, rather than a carving tool, because the edges of the smaller letters are uneven.’ That prisoners were allowed a knife, much less a carving tool, seems rather unusual (although clearly none of the Tower guards could have conceived of The Shawshank Redemption). If this is indeed the case, it illustrates that at least for the circumstance of a prison, the attitude towards graffiti in the sixteenth century is rather similar to that demonstrated in the first century. The overwhelming presence (there are after all, approximately 10,000 examples) of graffiti in Pompeii suggests that there was little done to discourage the practice of inscribing the walls. Perhaps the best illustration of this comes in the form of a giant ship. On a wall in the peristyle of the eponymous House of the Ship Europa (I.15.3), is the carved image of a large ship a, smaller ship and some text.

ship-1051a-3c74dThe entire image measures more than a meter square according to Langner, and is situated high enough on the wall to make it impossible to reach the top without a ladder or footstool. In addition, the detail of the graffito, including sails, rigging, and sailors, makes clear that this would have taken a significant amount of time to inscribe, much like the graffiti in the Tower of London. That this could have been done with any level of secrecy, or in fact in one sitting, is simply impossible. Much like the work of the sixteenth century prisoners, this was carried out with the complacency, if not the encouragement, of whomever actually owned the wall into which it is carved.

What this shows, and what I come back to again and again, not only with my own work on Pompeii, but with each new example I find of (modern) graffiti, is that until very recently, writing on the walls was at least tolerated, and indicative of an overwhelming human desire to record one’s place in the world.

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