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Recent Barrett Honors College graduate Alexa Rose created a database on the ancient graffiti in Pompeii as her honors thesis project that has gained widespread attention. Her database is now in the Digital Archaeological Record, an online resource used by researchers worldwide. She has been contacted by researchers interested in specific ancient Roman ideas expressed through graffiti. And, the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix has asked for her help with its Pompeii exhibit.
Rose, who double majored in anthropology and classical civilizations and graduated in May, credits Barrett with giving her the support to conceptualize her project and get it all done.
"Barrett gave me the professional development fund and thesis fund in order to get to Pompeii and conduct both thesis and archaeological research. Without Barrett, this project simply would not have happened,” Rose said.
It all started several years ago when Rose, on a trip to Pompeii, picked up a book on graffiti in the ancient city’s gift shop and it became the inspiration for a three-year project that evolved into her honors thesis.
Pompeii is a vast archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region, near the coast of the Bay of Naples. Once a thriving and sophisticated Roman city, Pompeii was buried under ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The preserved site features excavated ruins of streets, villas, temples, amphitheaters, and other buildings that visitors can freely explore. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
“Archaeologists get access to Pompeii at all hours and I loved to tour through the streets at night alone looking for the scratched Roman whispers,” Rose said. “Then I learned just how little information we have on it and I just kept going.”
Rose’s idea was to create a database of the graffiti that people could use to pull data from the ancient scratches adorning the walls of Pompeii’s structures. For example, she has a category devoted to religion, so if you want to browse graffiti that reference gods or the practice of religion, her database allows you to do so. If you want to read graffiti about gladiators, her database makes those graffiti easier to find. It's a very helpful resource.
Rose said she wanted to know what types of graffiti, based on content, and how many pieces of graffiti there were throughout Pompeii. She made categories for each type, much like one would for artifacts or books. Surprisingly, Rose found that unlike modern graffiti, most of the graffiti in Pompeii were kind "greetings" such as good luck or hello.
Joseph O’Neill, an honors faculty fellow in Barrett and her thesis director, said that the study of graffiti is important because graffiti allow us access to people who are generally absent from the historical record.
“The overwhelming majority of textual evidence we have for ancient Rome comes from elite male authors who only really tend to write about the things they're interested in and consider important, and they write from their own decidedly elite, exclusively male perspectives,” O’Neill said.
“They don't really write much about the lives of women, slaves, children, merchants, farmers, the urban poor, immigrants, or the soldiery, unless they're criticizing them or using them as negative examples for how a proper Roman aristocrat should behave. That means that what we can know about what life was really like for 99% of people in the Roman Empire is extremely limited. This is why graffiti are so important. They give voice, so to speak, to the voiceless in Roman history. By studying graffiti, historians of Rome can learn a lot about what life might have been like for the vast majority of Romans.”
The project entailed physically surveying Pompeii for the placement and content of graffiti and then entering all of the individual pieces from multiple texts with the most information into one Excel file.
“Most of the texts I referred to did not have accurate records as to where the pieces were found due to Pompeii’s long and sometimes troubled excavation standards,” Rose said, explaining the challenges of her project.
“This process ended up involving about 1,300 pieces of graffiti out of 6,000, give or take. Then I reviewed the data and looked for trends such as categories, authors or even quotations of major Roman works in order to distill some data,” she said.
According to O’Neill, it is “frustratingly difficult” to access Roman graffiti.
“Thousands of graffiti have been found and recorded from the city of Pompeii alone, just one relatively small city in a massive empire that spread across three continents,” O’Neill said. “Alexa's work is significant because she has gathered together a pretty large sample of graffiti from Pompeii into a single database, and made the graffiti searchable according to a number of different criteria.”
Rose started a Reddit feed to get people talking about the Pompean graffiti. She said she wants to make her database accessible to anyone with an interest in the subject, adding that it is the only database online, searchable and with the most complete data.
“This is more than helpful when wanting just a simple quote for aiding research on Romans,” Rose said, “like, for instance, there is a lot of graffiti about what Pompeiians thought of Nero, so someone could use my data to see real public opinion of major historical people.”
Her work was also personally fulfilling. “It was a way for me to see parts of Pompeii I wouldn’t have thought of visiting otherwise,” she said. “Also, I have a long term interest in graffiti as a medium. I was helping a couple local art museums with curating modern graffiti and I wondered about the ancients thinking about the same thing. Graffiti felt like a connection to someone long gone and I hope others see that. Graffiti is a different view of the Romans’ more pure and unfiltered literature.”
Rose started understanding that creating a database of Pompean graffiti would be a great idea through her participation in the Barrett at CLAS centers fellowship, in which she helped catalogue petroglyphs, another form of graffiti. Then she took multiple classes with O'Neill and learned the importance of analyzing first hand sources.
“I knew that if I chose any other thesis director, the project would not be as perfect as it is,” she said. “Dr. O'Neill, unlike the other classics or anthropology professors, had time to devote to this project and, given his research in empirical inscriptions, it was a perfect fit."
Rose added that Barrett faculty foster students’ interaction with professionals in their field, and help them think critically and function as true academics. She strongly encourages students to join Barrett the Honors College.
“Do you want to be around the smartest people at ASU and the country,” Rose asked. “Do you want to have resources to do anything you could possibly want? Accept the Barrett challenge because you will not regret it. I came into Barrett last year as a transfer student, and while it was difficult, it was the most supportive and rewarding experience.”
Rose is going on to pursue a master’s in classical archeology at Brandeis University.
“I want to continue studying Roman material culture,” Rose said, “with the hopes of studying Pompeii all of my life.”
Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, a Barrett Honors College student majoring in journalism.
Read more about Alexa Rose here.