The Ancient Ostia Graffiti Project

Archaeological sites decay slowly, constantly and often irreversibly. And because of the scarcity of conservation resources, excavated remains are particularly in peril. Such is the case with exposed and partially exposed ancient graffiti at Ostia Antica. Quite regrettably, there are many cases in which graffiti that were plainly visible and readable twenty years ago have now completely disappeared. Digital documentation can preserve these resources and help make them findable and accessible for future research. We need your support in continuing this important work.

The effort to photographically document graffiti at Ostia began more than twenty-five years ago as an initiative by Jan Theo Bakker and the English scholar Eric Taylor. They compiled a list of sources supplemented by items found in the card catalogue in the biblioteca and this list was used as a program for photography. However, in addition, Eric Taylor undertook a more ambitious survey of wall surfaces and pavements within the cantiere, with the aim of producing the most complete photographic graffiti archive possible. This archive has now been available to scholars for many years. The means of photography in that era was of course, conventional photography.

In late 2013, recognizing the need to review the existing survey, and update and amplify the photographic record with digital images, a team consisting of Francis Brenders, Robert Grady Harp and Phillip Schmidt applied for permission to renew the project and began work. We also proposed to electronically tag captured images with important data. The information which describes data – called metadata – and the principles of how it is organized and indexed can make a valuable addition to the technical and historical record. Our permesso was granted in 2014.

In repeat Spring/Autumn visits since then, the staff of the Ostia Graffiti project (since joined by Mary Jane Cuyler) have revisited approximately eighty percent of the exposed venues seen by Eric Taylor and many of the protected venues, as well. These include the Caserma, Case a Giardino, Casa delle Muse, Terme del Foro and many others. Preliminary statistics suggest that perhaps thirty percent of the unprotected graffiti previously recorded and others are, due to erosion, collapse of the plastered surfaces, light damage, etc., no longer visible or present on-site. This, we think, underscores the urgency of the project. Recognizing this fact, the staff of the Ostia Graffiti Project have wholly funded the project themselves. However, additional financial assistance and resources are always needed and welcome.

Having systematically documented the bulk of the extant graffiti, the Ostia Graffiti Project will in 2016 turn its attention to the digital documentation of graffiti known to have been preserved on plaster surfaces that have been, over the years, detached and stored elsewhere onsite at Ostia Antica. These distaccati, often very heavy and unwieldy, pose new challenges and also new opportunties for the recovery and documentation of ancient graffiti at Ostia Antica.

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