Digital Humanities: Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants

Period of Performance

6/1/2016 - 11/30/2018

Funding Totals

$74,592.00 (approved)
$74,592.00 (awarded)

Ancient Graffiti Project: Tools for Analyzing Personal Communication

FAIN: HD-248610-16

Washington and Lee University (Lexington, VA 24450-2116)
Rebecca R. Benefiel (Project Director: September 2015 to March 2022)
Sara Sprenkle (Co Project Director: March 2016 to March 2022)

Prototype development of a web-based resource documenting handwritten inscriptions found within the ruins of the early Roman Empire, with a focus on the town of Herculaneum as a pilot case.

We propose to develop tools to study and analyze handwritten, informal, ancient inscriptions (graffiti) for the Ancient Graffiti Project. Thousands of these messages from Herculaneum and Pompeii convey voices at every level of ancient society. Handwritten inscriptions differ from inscriptions on stone. First, since graffiti are found in situ, original geospatial and contextual data are available. Graffiti also include drawings, which are difficult to locate in text-based search engines. Consider how to search for a dog attacking a stag. These tools include 1) representation of graffiti in their spatial context at multiple granularities, 2) a system of controlled vocabularies and filters to make figural graffiti (drawings) searchable and retrievable, and 3) a schema of medium-specific metadata for handwritten inscriptions. With these tools, users will be able to study both inscribed texts and images, as well as research questions specific to ancient graffiti.

Media Coverage

The Ancient Graffiti Project: Ancient Words Revived by Modern Scholars (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Jeanne Timmons
Publication: Mostly Mammoths
Date: 5/8/2016
Abstract: What began as a way for her students to have more hands-on experience with epigraphy blossomed into an enormous international project. At least 50 people have contributed thus far, and there is still much, much more to do. Dr. Rebecca Benefiel, Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University, didn’t want to simply teach about ancient Roman monuments; she wanted her students to try to edit inscriptions directly. This essay describes the genesis and accomplishments of the Ancient Graffiti Project.

New Project Uncovers Ancient Games and Gladiators Through the Graffiti of the Fans (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Sarah Bond
Publication: Forbes Magazine
Date: 7/4/2016
Abstract: A new project looking at ancient graffiti uncovers the importance of gladiatorial games in the lives of everyday Romans.

Pompeii’s Graffiti and the Ancient Origins of Social Media (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Adrienne LaFrance
Publication: The Atlantic
Date: 3/29/2016
Abstract: From Roman walls to Twitter, humans have a long-standing obsession with leaving their mark.

Student and Professor Secure Grant to Study Ancient Graffiti (Media Coverage)
Publication: Millsaps Bulletin
Date: 2/26/2017
Abstract: Dr. Holly Sypniewski, Assistant Director of the Ancient Graffiti Project, and Brittany Hardy, a student team member will spend spring break at the Getty Research Institute, where they will study the documentation of graffiti drawings in the field notebooks of Matteo Della Corte, a leading scholar who documented the ancient graffiti uncovered during the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1914–1958). They have won a grant from the Classical Association of the Middle West and South to support their travel.

‘Graffiti in Pompeii and Herculaneum give insight into groups marginalized by history books’ (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Catherine Edwards
Publication: The Local, Italy
Date: 7/20/2017
Abstract: In a time before social media - or even much available paper - the walls were an easy way to communicate. While today’s baby boomers criticize youngsters for documenting the minutia of their lives on Facebook, it turns out the Romans were more or less doing the same thing.

NPR Radio IQ "Virginia Scholars' Ancient Graffiti Project" (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Rebecca R. Benefiel
Publication: NPR Radio IQ
Date: 5/22/2018
Abstract: Scholars from Washington and Lee and the University of Richmond are sharing a surprising discovery – showing and explaining ancient graffiti online.

Associated Products

The Ancient Graffiti Project (Web Resource)
Title: The Ancient Graffiti Project
Author: Holly Sypniewski
Author: Rebecca Benefiel
Author: Sara Sprenkle
Abstract: The Ancient Graffiti Project provides a digital resource for studying the handwritten wall-inscriptions of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Year: 2016
Primary URL:
Secondary URL:

Images and Text on the Walls of Herculaneum: Designing the Ancient Graffiti Project (Book Section)
Title: Images and Text on the Walls of Herculaneum: Designing the Ancient Graffiti Project
Author: Holly Sypniewski
Author: Rebecca Benefiel
Editor: A. Rocco
Editor: A. E. Felle
Abstract: Among the many handwritten texts inscribed in the first century on the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum, there sometimes appear also hand-sketched drawings, or figural graffiti. These figural graffiti have involved additional challenges as we create curated, digital editions of ancient graffiti for the Epigraphic Database Roma and as we design a way to search for and retrieve such drawings via the Ancient Graffiti Project search engine. In this article, we discuss the challenges we face and some of the strategies we have developed in response, with a particular focus on the material from Herculaneum.
Year: 2016
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: This volume has collected contributions from several ongoing digital projects raising questions and proposing solutions regarding encoding inscriptions – from the Archaic period to the Middle Ages and beyond, even in languages other than Greek and Latin – which do not fall within those labelled as standard.
Publisher: Archaeopress
Book Title: Off the Beaten Track. Epigraphy at the Borders
ISBN: 1784913227

Ancient MakerSpaces - Digital Classics Resources: "The Ancient Graffiti Project" (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Ancient MakerSpaces - Digital Classics Resources: "The Ancient Graffiti Project"
Author: R. Benefiel
Abstract: Ancient MakerSpaces Saturday January 7, 2017 8:30am - 4:00pm Sheraton Centre Toronto VIP Room An all-day Digital Classics workshop featuring presentations, demonstrations, papers, and a concluding panel. WORKSHOP OPEN TO ALL AIA/SCS 2017 ATTENDEES • NO ADVANCED SIGN-UP REQUIRED Almost all research, teaching, and scholarly communication in ancient studies today bears the imprint of digital technology in some way, yet the growing number of projects and the rapid rate of technological development present a distinct challenge for scholars who are interested in taking advantage of advances in the digital humanities. This workshop is a space for students and scholars to interact with a variety of digital techniques and digital projects of broad application, providing participants the opportunity to engage in hands-on, peer-based learning. Experienced digital humanists from various disciplines within ancient studies have developed demonstration curricula and will coordinate teams of trained demonstrators for each workshop station.The emphasis will be on learning to do things of immediate utility to scholarship and pedagogy. The workshop is comprised of six demonstrations; together they will present techniques and projects dedicated to: mapping, 3D modeling, text tagging, annotating, searching, and editing, intertext discovery in Latin and Greek, ancient literary manuscripts, graffiti, and epigraphy.
Date: 01/17/2017
Primary URL:
Conference Name: Society of Classical Studies Annual Meeting

“The Faces of Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Study of Graffiti Drawings” (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: “The Faces of Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Study of Graffiti Drawings”
Author: H. Sypniewski
Author: B. Hardy
Abstract: “The Faces of Pompeii and Herculaneum: A Study of Graffiti Drawings” We present the evidence for these types of drawings on walls and examine the range of ways they have been documented. We will then suggest guidelines for creating standardized descriptions for figural graffiti so that they can be included alongside textual graffiti in epigraphic databases, can be searchable, and able to be studied more systematically.
Date: 04/07/2017
Primary URL:
Conference Name: Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS)


Date: 4/8/2017
Organization: Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS)
Abstract: The Stewart Undergraduate Awards Sub-Committee annually awards up to two research grants supporting collaborative research between a faculty member and an undergraduate. These awards can be for up to $1,000 each. These awards are intended to support faculty research collaborations in Classics (any sub-discipline) with undergraduate students. Faculty-student pairs may be from institutions with graduate programs, but the student involved must be in an undergraduate.

Veni, Vidi, Scripsi: Ancient Graffiti in the Latin Classroom (Conference/Institute/Seminar)
Title: Veni, Vidi, Scripsi: Ancient Graffiti in the Latin Classroom
Author: M. B. Smith
Author: M. Rebman
Abstract: Veni, Vidi, Scripsi: Ancient Graffiti in the Latin Classroom This workshop will explore the different strategies in using ancient graffiti to teach grammar, vocabulary, culture, and critical thinking. Participants will discuss the Ancient Graffiti Project and its new website as a companion in the Latin classroom. There will also be an open discussion for teachers to share their own strategies, experiences, and ideas about teaching ancient graffiti. As Latin teachers, we are constantly asked questions regarding the relevance of the subject we teach. The usual stock answers revolve around the SAT, the possibility of going to medical or law school, or how it allows one to learn other languages more easily. This, however, isn’t enough to keep students engaged anymore. It is cultural relevance that appears to be the answer. Students are more willing to engage when they can relate to the concept being taught. But how can students connect their lives to Roman lives? The answer: ancient graffiti. The Ancient Graffiti Project collects graffiti from Herculaneum and Pompeii and displays its findings online, making the collection accessible to the public. The project provides an opportunity for students to view the Romans not taught in textbooks or seen in works by Caesar, Cicero, or Virgil. Graffiti encourages a glimpse into the common man’s life that helps students better understand the Romans. Students who use ancient graffiti begin to realize that the Romans are not so different from themselves. It is here that the learning really begins.
Date Range: 04/06/2017
Location: Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) Annual Meeting
Primary URL:

Ancient Graffiti Project: Geo-Spatial Visualization and Search Tools for Ancient Handwritten Inscriptions (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Ancient Graffiti Project: Geo-Spatial Visualization and Search Tools for Ancient Handwritten Inscriptions
Author: H. Sypniewski
Author: R. Benefiel
Author: S. Sprenkle
Abstract: Ancient Graffiti Project: Geo-Spatial Visualization and Search Tools for Ancient Handwritten Inscriptions A presentation of the digital tools and mapping resources that we have created for the Ancient Graffiti Project, to aid in the study of ancient handwritten inscriptions. Presented at the 2017 Conference of: Digital Access to Textual Cultural Heritage
Date: 06/02/2017
Primary URL:
Conference Name: Digital Access to Textual Cultural Heritage (DATeCH), 2017 Conference, Göttingen, Germany

The Herculaneum Graffiti Project: Initial Field Season, 2014 (Article)
Title: The Herculaneum Graffiti Project: Initial Field Season, 2014
Author: H. Sypniewski
Author: R. Benefiel
Author: J. DiBiasie Sammons
Abstract: This article describes the goals and activities of fieldwork we undertook during summer 2014, our inaugural season of the Herculaneum Graffiti Project. Reports preliminary results of our survey and documentation efforts.
Year: 2016
Primary URL:
Access Model: Open access
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: The Journal of Fasti Online. FOLD&R (Fasti OnLine Documents & Research)
Publisher: International Association of Classical Archaeology (AIAC)

Regio I. Latium et Campania. Pompeii et Herculaneum: Graffiti (Database/Archive/Digital Edition)
Title: Regio I. Latium et Campania. Pompeii et Herculaneum: Graffiti
Author: R. Benefiel
Abstract: This publication provides an overview to the graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum and documents the editing work of the individual contributors to the Epigraphic Database Roma (EDR). Our team creates critical editions of ancient handwritten inscriptions for the Ancient Graffiti Project (AGP) which we then share with EDR, the epigraphic database for ancient inscriptions of Italy. The current volume provides a synthetic publication of over 800 critical editions of ancient graffiti written by our team members.
Year: 2017
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Publication of Italia Epigrafica Digitale, critical editions of ancient inscriptions from Italy.
Access Model: Open access

"Growing the Ancient Graffiti Project" (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: "Growing the Ancient Graffiti Project"
Author: Rebecca Benefiel
Abstract: The Ancient Graffiti Project (AGP) has been designed to provide a scholarly yet user- friendly resource for the study of handwritten wall-inscriptions. From prayers to quotations of poetry, from grocery lists to greetings from friends, people wrote a variety of messages on the walls of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These texts are as individualized as people who wrote them and are heterogeneous in content, format, handwriting, and expression. AGP offers explanatory material, interactive filters, and links to further information to aid the scholar in evaluating these inscriptions, their locations, and their characteristics. For the Visible Words Conference, we will focus our discussion on the choices we have made for presenting text along with archaeological context, since ancient graffiti are usually found in their original location and Herculaneum and Pompeii provide a rich archaeological context. We will also discuss challenges involved in illustrating difficult to read, often fragmentary inscriptions. Ancient graffiti are rarely ever illustrated. They are small and often shallowly incised and therefore difficult to capture in a photograph. Yet the appearance and paleography of these personal inscriptions is illuminating. Some messages are written in all capital letters, others in cursive lettering. Many graffiti are written in a steady hand; others were clearly composed by someone who was less familiar with writing. Finally, we look forward to fruitful discussions about EpiDoc.
Date: 10/07/2017
Primary URL:
Conference Name: Visible Words: Digital Epigraphy in a Global Perspective

The Ancient Graffiti Project (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: The Ancient Graffiti Project
Author: Erika Zimmermann Damer
Author: Rebecca Benefiel
Abstract: We will present the Ancient Graffiti Project (, a new interactive scholarly resource that allows students and scholars direct access to ancient handwritten inscriptions from Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as tools to understand these personalized writings in their archaeological context. The Ancient Graffiti Project incorporates the results of recent fieldwork in Herculaneum and offers the most up-to-date resource available.
Date: 10/05/2017
Primary URL:
Conference Name: Recent Work in Vesuvian Lands: New Projects, Practices, and Approaches

Greek Graffiti in Herculaneum (Article)
Title: Greek Graffiti in Herculaneum
Author: Holly M. Sypniewski
Author: Rebecca R. Benefiel
Abstract: This article offers an overview of ancient Greek handwritten wall inscriptions in the city of Herculaneum and the first contextual analysis of these inscriptions. Prior to this article, few ancient graffiti in Greek had been identified in Herculaneum. We identify, analyze, and discuss twenty-seven individual inscriptions that present Greek or mixed-language (Latin and Greek) texts. By presenting where Greek graffiti appear, what type of messages and content they contain, and how they communicate and interact with other texts, we provide a detailed picture of the distribution and context of Greek in Herculaneum and offer new insights into the culture of writing in the Roman Empire
Year: 2018
Primary URL:
Access Model: Subscription
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: American Journal of Archaeology
Publisher: American Journal of Archaeology