3D Mapping Brings 2,000 years of Ancient Egyptian Graffiti into Focus
The oldest known graffiti in the world dates back to the ancient Egyptian civilization. It was carved and painted over 4,000 years ago on the walls of the temples and tombs. Ancient Egyptian graffiti can also be found on stones dating to the Roman Empire, where people often inscribed messages, drawings, and symbols on public buildings and monuments.
Some of these ancient musings are still visible in Egypt today, and they are now offering archaeologists a hitherto unavailable glimpse into the lives and concerns of ordinary people. A team of researchers, who applied state-of-the-art technology to better understand 2,000-year-old Egyptian graffiti on the Temple of Isis in Philae, have now published their advanced findings in Egyptian Archaeology, revealing the beliefs and thoughts of everyday people.
The temple of Isis on Agilkia Island in Lake Nasser, Egypt, where the team has been studying ancient Egyptian graffiti. (Hosamalex / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Drawing Parallels Between Ancient and Modern Graffiti
Nick Hedley from Simon Fraser University (SFU) is a geography professor who served as a co-investigator of this Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC)-funded project in Egypt. “It is fascinating learning that the graffiti in ancient Egypt shares similarities with today's graffiti,” explained Hedley in a press release.
- Significant Inscriptions Found in Egypt: From the Earliest Huge Hieroglyphs to Greek-Roman Period Graffiti
- Tracing the Paths of the Vikings Through Their Graffiti
One can be forgiven for assuming graffiti is only an act of vandalism, for in academia it is also treated as a form of self-expression through which ancient people expressed their thoughts, emotions and ideas in public arenas. When executed well, graffiti can serve as a form of artistic expression and as a way to express political messages. As such, throughout history, the medium of graffiti has been used to inspire rebellion against authority.
SFU geography professor Nick Hedley conducting the ancient Egyptian graffiti analysis at the Temple of Isis in Philae, Egypt. (Simon Fraser University)
The Temple of Isis is “a Giant Sponge”
Like in modern civilizations, architecture in ancient Egypt was built by the ruling classes, while the graffiti on the outside of buildings records the thoughts and activities of ordinary people. The new study was based on Egyptian graffiti identified on the 4th century BC Temple of Isis in Philae, which is located on an island in the Nile River.
This temple was dedicated to the goddess Isis, who was worshipped as a mother goddess and the protector of the dead. It features a hypostyle hall, a sanctuary and several chapels, all adorned with intricate carvings, hieroglyphs, colorful murals and, of course, graffiti. As such, the temple acts like “a giant sponge or notepad for generations of people from different cultures for over 2,000 years,” explained Hedley.
The team working at the Temple of Isis has been applying applying spatial reality capture technology to the field of archaeology in Egypt in order to further understand the existing graffiti and other inscriptions. (Simon Fraser University)
The Magic of 3D Spatial Reality
Hedley is an expert in “spatial reality capture,” which is the process of digitally capturing and representing a physical space or object in three dimensions. The craft utilizes laser scanners, drones and photogrammetry cameras to capture data about physical environments, or objects.
When discussing the Egyptian graffiti study, the team explained that when they applied these techniques to “thousands of examples of graffiti,” some of which were carved less than a millimeter deep on the temple's columns, walls and roof, “precision was essential.”
- Holy Grail of Christian Graffiti Discovered On 5th Century Chalice
- Vandalism at Ancient Sites, Who Really Cares Anyway?
Sabrina Higgins, an SFU archaeologist and project co-investigator, clarified that traditional photographs and two-dimensional plans “do not allow the field site to be viewed as a dynamic, multi-layered, and evolving space.” Therefore, Hedley and the team advanced beyond basic two-dimensional imaging to create “a cutting-edge three-dimensional recording of the temple’s entire surface.”
Sabrina Higgins, SFU archaeologist and project co-investigator, who has been working with the team to move beyond two-dimensional imaging to record the temple surface in three-dimensions and get a deeper understanding of the ancient Egyptian graffiti that exists there. (Simon Fraser University)
Thousands of Years of “Figural” Graffiti
The new 3D images highlight both the interior and exterior of the temple, including the graffiti. This means the ancient marks can now be studied at “otherwise impossible viewpoints, from virtually anywhere, without compromising detail.” The researchers said their new visualizations also allow the study of the relationship between “a figural graffito, any graffiti that surrounds it, and its location in relation to the structure of temple architecture.”
“Figural graffito” refers to a specific type of figurative graffiti that uses images or figures rather than just text or symbols. This style can include anything from simple drawings or sketches, to more complex and detailed images. Figural graffiti is a controversial topic, with many people today regarding it as pure vandalism.
Meanwhile others see it as a form of artistic expression. Notwithstanding, ancient figural graffiti is an important part of street art culture today. Like the Egyptian graffiti under investigation, it has a rich history dating back thousands of years, as has been demonstrated by this new study.
Top image: Ancient Egyptian graffiti, in this case Coptic graffiti, at the Temple of Isis in the Philae Temple Complex in Egypt. Source: Warren LeMary / CC0
By Ashley Cowie