I Was Here: The Universality of Writing

DSCF4749One aspect of my current research project that is equally fascinating and difficult to deal with is the act of writing, specifically in the context of graffiti. These texts often seemingly have no real purpose – in the sense that even though there is an attempt at communication – the intended audience, the meaning of the message, and even the author can often remain ambiguous. What seems to be the one constant, unifying factor of Pompiean (or indeed, any) graffiti is the need to record one’s existence in some way. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more I become aware of writing – not just in the ancient world but even today – the more I recognize that noting a person’s presence in this life is a universal desire.

Case in point – I spent about a month of my summer traveling around the western US with family, visiting various monuments and historic sites, both natural and man-made. During this trip, I found evidence, both ancient and (relatively) modern, of the seemingly ubiquitous need to leave one’s mark on the world. Rather by accident, I found note on a map of a place called Pompey’s Pillar. Of course, the Classicist in me was immediately wondering why there would be a giant rock formation in northern Montana named after the great Roman general, but the disappointment in discovering it had nothing to do with Gnaeus Pompey Magnus was tempered significantly when I found that the sandstone butte is covered in Native American pictographs and modern (as in, nineteenth and early twentieth century) graffiti. Native Americans called this ‘the place where the mountain lion lies’ but it is unclear if this is due to actual mountain lions or the shape of the rock. Local tribes engraved the rock face with a variety of images, most of which are nearly impossible to see today:

DSCF4751 DSCF4750

These pictographs, however, are not the reason Pompey’s Pillar is a national landmark. The land on which it sits was part of the vast territory that comprised the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and thus it was discovered by one half of the expeditionary team who charted this land, William Clark, on the return journey of their western exploration. Finding the Native images, he chose to record his name in the rock face as well, and this survives as the only physical evidence of the entire Lewis & Clark Expedition.

DSCF4697He recorded this in his journal, on the 25th of July, 1806:

‘I proceeded on after the [rain] lay a little and at 4 P M arived at a remarkable rock. Situated in an extensive bottom on the Stard. side of the river & 250 paces from it.  This rock I ascended and from it’s top had a most extensive view in every direction. This rock which I shall call Pompy’s Tower is 200 feet high and 400 paces in secumphrance and only axcessable on one side which is from the N.E. the other parts of it being a perpendicular Clift of lightish Coloured gritty rock on the top there is a tolerable Soil of about 5 or 6 feet thick Covered with Short grass. The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on the top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals etc. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & year. From the top of this Tower I Could discover two low Mountains & the Rocky Mts. covered with Snow S.W.’

The pictographs Clark found carved into Pompey’s Pillar were not, much to my surprise, the only manner by which local tribes recorded some aspect of their history. The Lakota recorded their history in a calendaric fashion, painting images to represent specific events on an animal hide, called a Winter Count.

Lone Dog, Greene and Thornton, The Year The Stars Fell, 2007, SmithsonianThese records could last multiple generations, cover hundreds of years, and significant events of the past could be incorporated into new counts as a means to preserve memory. The Battiste Good Winter Count, recorded in the late 19th century, includes tribal events dating back to AD 900.

Although separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles, similar instances of recording a person’s presence or a specific event can be found painted and scratched into the walls of Pompeii. The enclosure wall of Tomb 18 South outside the Porta di Ercolano bears two such texts, written by men demonstrating that at some point, they were there:

Gemellus / cum Proclo hac
‘Gemellus (was) here with Proclus.’

Glyco cum Martiale / sole calente sitites
‘Glyco (was) here with Martialis while the sun was boiling, thirsty.’

A similar message is found on the house at IX.9.a, where Aemilius Celer asserted that he lived there (CIL IV 3794).  Events, such as gladiatorial contests, were also memorialized, including details such as who fought who, who won or lost, and how they were armed:

CIL IV 2508

Pri[mum] / munus M(arci) [M]eso[ni —] / [—]VI Nonas Maias // T(h)r(aeces) m(urmillones) / [—]nator Ner(onianus) |(pugnarum) II [—] / Tigris Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) I[—] / [—]ci[u]s Ner(onianus) |(pugnarum) III m(issus?) / Speculator |(pugnarum) LXIX / v(icit?) essed(arius) r(etiarius?) / Crysantus [—] |(pugnarum) II / M(arcus) Artorius [—] // (H)o(plomachi) m(urmillones) / m(issus?) [—]p[-]eacius Iul(ianus) [—] / M[—] Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) LV [—] / v(icit) [—]iu[s —] / [—]VR[—] / [— t]r(aex?) / [—]B[—] Ner(onianus) [—] / [—] // Munus [—] V IV III prid[ie] Idus Idi[bus] Mai(is) // Di[machaeri(?)] (h)o[plomachi(?)] / m(issus) I[—]ciens Ner(onianus) |(pugnarum) XX[—] / v(icit) Nobilior Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) II / t(raex) m(urmillo) / m(issus) L(ucius) Semproniu[s —] / v(icit) Platanus Iu[l(ianus —] / t(hraex) m(urmillo) / v(icit) Pugnax Ner(onianus) |(pugnarum) III / p(eriit) Murranus Ner(onianus) |(pugnarum) III / (h)o(plomachus) t(hraex) / v(icit) Cycnus Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) VIIII / m(issus) Atticus Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) XIV / t(hraex) m(urmillo) / v(icit) Herma Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) IV / m(issus) Q(uintus) Petillius [—] / ess(edarii) / m(issus) P(ublius) Ostorius |(pugnarum) LI / v(icit) Scylax Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) XXVI / t(hraex) m(urmillo) / v(icit) Nodu[—] Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) VII / m(issus) L(ucius) Petronius |(pugnarum) XIV / t(hraex) m(urmillo) / p(eriit) L(ucius) Fabius |(pugnarum) VIIII / v(icit) Astus Iul(ianus) |(pugnarum) XIV / // Laudand[—]io[—] |(pugnarum) XI(?) / [—]ng[—] |(pugnarum) XIV // No[—] m(issus?) / Ri[—]ecius[
‘Games […] on the 12, 13, 14, 15 May

Double swordsman (?) versus heavily armed fighter:
Reprieved.     [. . . .]ciens Neronian, fought 20 [. . .] 11
Won.               Nobilior, Julian, fought 2 [. . .] 14
Thracian versus murmillo:
Reprieved.     Lucius Sempronius [. . .]
Won.              Platanus, Julian [. . .]
Thracian versus murmillo:
Won.               Pugnax, Neronian, fought 3.
Killed.            Murranus, Neronian, fought 3.
Heavily armed fighter versus Thracian:
Won.               Cycnus, Julian, fought 9.
Reprieved.    Atticus, Julian, fought 14.
Thracian versus murmillo:
Won.               Herma, Julian, fought 4.
Reprieved.    Quintus Petillius [. . .]
Reprieved.      Publius Ostorius, fought 51.
Won.               Scylax, Julian, fought 26.
Thracian versus murmillo:
Won.               Nodu[. . .], Julian, fought 7.
Killed.            Lucius Petronius, fought 14.
Thracian versus murmillo:
Killed.            Lucius Fabius, fought 9.
Won.             Astus, Julian, fought 14.’

Whether it is recording a gladiatorial contest, an afternoon stroll in the blazing sun on the Via dei Sepolcri, discovering a large rock formation during a surveying expedition, or the significant events of the past year by a tribal council, all of these texts are, at their very essence, the same. There is a fundamental human desire, regardless of time, place, or the existence of written language, to be able to preserve memory, and to state unequivocally: I was here.