This article is available at the URI as part of the NYU Library's Ancient World Digital Library in partnership with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW). More information about ISAW Papers is available on the ISAW website.

Except where noted, ©2014 Rebecca Benefiel and Sara Sprenkle; distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License
Creative Commons License

This article can be downloaded as a single file

ISAW Papers 7.4 (2014)

The Herculaneum Graffiti Project

Rebecca Benefiel and Sara Sprenkle

The Herculaneum Graffiti Project has two main aims: to digitize hundreds of handwritten wall-inscriptions of the first century AD and to provide a resource that will enable these graffiti to be studied in the context of their location in this ancient city.

Herculaneum was destroyed in the year AD 79 by the volcanic eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. Before that catastrophe, it had been a thriving seaside town on the Bay of Naples in central Italy. Messages written throughout the town attest to a lively interest among the area’s inhabitants in writing and communicating thoughts publicly. The archaeological site preserved roughly 250 of these texts, written on the walls of every type of building. The texts feature a remarkable variety of content, from greetings to friends to grocery lists, from drawings of gladiators to comments on philosophers. These were collected between 1929 and 1946 and were recorded in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, vol. IV, Supp. 3, but without a map of the site and with minimal to no illustration.

The objectives of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project include reexamining these inscriptions, recording their physical data, and making these inscriptions widely accessible via digital publication online. In designing a search engine that will allow scholars and the public to search for graffiti at Herculaneum, our aim is to move away from viewing a graffito as simply a brief text or isolated marking and instead move toward understanding these messages as textual artifacts within a larger social framework for communication. A concurrent aim is to record and highlight the presence of figural graffiti, drawings that were incised into wall-plaster in the same manner as textual messages but were not recorded systematically.

EAGLE, The Electronic Archive of Greek and Latin Epigraphy

The Herculaneum Graffiti Project works in collaboration with EAGLE, a federation of epigraphic databases that together will ultimately make all Greek and Latin inscriptions through the sixth century CE available and publicly accessible online (; The fieldwork and analysis that will be accomplished in Herculaneum by HGP will allow for detailed contributions to EAGLE, where a comprehensive set of metadata for each inscription will be available. The HGP website will provide a complementary way to search for graffiti and will display basic information for these inscriptions, each with a link to the respective entry in EAGLE.

Inscriptions and Wall-inscriptions

The epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg (EDH), one of the four main databases of EAGLE, recently introduced a visual element on its homepage, which now displays a map marking the locations of the inscriptions it contains ( A map like this, which locates the provenance of inscriptions by town or site, is possible in Google Earth or Google Maps. At Herculaneum, we are working with a different scale of context, identifying not just the city where inscriptions are found, but where in the city inscriptions are found, from block to block and property to property, indoors and outdoors. This city-wide perspective provides a new vantage point and an approach that could eventually be applied to inscriptions in other ancient cities as well. Herculaneum provides a special opportunity to study the presence of writing throughout the city since these wall-inscriptions, inscribed into a non-moveable surface, were all found in situ. By using the availability of precise location information for this epigraphic material to create a spatial visualization of the presence of graffiti throughout the city, we hope to open up new types of questions about the epigraphic landscape of Herculaneum.

Text and Image

Our project also seeks to provide a solution to the problem of how to organize, store, and retrieve non-textual inscriptions. The search capacities for most databases are text-driven. Yet, text was just one part of the habit of writing on walls. Drawings were incised into wall-plaster in a similar manner, and these are more problematic to include in databases. The only way to search for and find such a graffiti drawing at present is to know how it is described (e.g. navis, viri facies). With the HGP, the researcher will have two other possibilities to track down such drawings. First, there will be a clickable hotspot at locations where ancient graffiti are present. By clicking, the researcher will be presented with all of the graffiti in that location, both textual and figural. Secondly, the scholar can search for all figural graffiti or can search by class of drawing (human motifs, animal motifs, boats, etc.). Results will list all appropriate examples and provide a map of their locations.

Search capabilities

We have therefore designed a search engine that allows a researcher to search for graffiti in multiple ways.

Prototype of Graffiti within Insula I.8 at Pompeii

The Herculaneum Graffiti Project is under construction and will have its first field season in summer 2014. Currently we have a working prototype limited to one city-block or insula in Pompeii: Insula I.8, a city-block of mixed zoning located near the center of the city. This prototype illustrates the search capabilities and the format in which results will be displayed and draws on the graffiti of Pompeii, Insula I.8, which have already been entered in EAGLE.

Herculaneum coming soon.

Figure 1. Plan of Insula I.8 at Pompeii
Figure 2. Sample results screen.