Grouchy Greeks and the birth of TripAdvisor

It’s all Greek to me: Hieroglyphs sit alongside Greek graffiti in an Egyptian temple.

Opinionated graffiti left on Egyptian tombs by Ancient Greek and Roman tourists has been likened to modern-day TripAdvisor reviews. Have we always been a species of grumblers and moaners?

Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, the final resting place of dozens of pharaohs and other nobles, has drawn tourists for millennia. But while many have left impressed by the epic monuments and intricate frescoes, others have been less enthusiastic.

Polish archaeologists are studying graffiti in the tombs dating from thousands of years ago, most of it created by Greek or Roman visitors. Crowds of people — including princes, politicians and philosophers — came to the valley in ancient times, and many commemorated their visit by engraving (or, more rarely, painting) something in the stone.

Some travellers simply inscribed their names. Others added their occupation or a few lines of poetry. Others yet chose to leave behind a piece of their mind.

“I did not like anything except the sarcophagus!” complains one. “I cannot read the hieroglyphs!” laments another — under which comes the reply, “Why do you care that you cannot read the hieroglyphs? I do not understand your concern!” The opinionated comments have been compared to user reviews on the travel website TripAdvisor.

Of course, there is nothing unusual about individuals using graffiti to express strong opinions or record their visit to a place. Vikings engraved their names in the church walls of what is now Turkey; prisoners in the Tower of London did the same in their cells. Modern-day gangs make themselves known by tagging urban spaces.

The Romans were especially prolific graffitists. They used the medium to advertise brothels, mock politicians and ridicule Christianity (one famous engraving shows a donkey being crucified). Pompeii has a wealth of fascinating inscriptions, including one colourful argument between a barmaid’s rival lovers.

The comparison with TripAdvisor makes sense, as graffiti shares much with social media. Both enable an individual to comment directly on an object or place. Both allow him or her to do so anonymously. Both preserve that comment for a very long time.

It is often said that the internet has made us more opinionated. But have we really changed that much?

Write of passage

No, say some. Remember: we have only been using the internet for 20-odd years. Human nature cannot change that fast. Our urge to speak our mind is based in feelings — pride, ignorance, jealousy, awe — that have always been in us. The graffiti on the tombs proves this.

That is not quite true, reply others. No graffiti is as vile as the nastiest online trolling. The internet gives us more anonymity, and more contact with those who share our beliefs, than graffiti ever could. This emboldens us to form even more extreme views. For better or worse, we are more opinionated than our Greek and Roman predecessors.

You Decide

  1. Does this story change your view of Ancient Greeks and Romans?
  2. Is graffiti art or vandalism?

Activities

  1. Write a TripAdvisor-style review of a place you have visited. In your class, did more people choose to write positive or negative reviews?
  2. Find a piece of graffiti in your area. (Failing that, choose one online.) Give a presentation to the class, explaining what we know about it and saying whether you think it should be removed.

Some People Say...

“Graffiti is one of the few tools you have if you have almost nothing.”

— Banksy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Having deciphered the vast majority of writing systems known to man, we are able to understand almost all ancient graffiti. After centuries of effort, Egypt’s notoriously difficult hieroglyphics were deciphered by a French scholar called Jean-François Champollion in 1822. He used the Rosetta Stone, which bore inscriptions in Greek, hieroglyphics and another ancient Egyptian script.
What do we not know?
Often, the identity of the graffitist is less clear than the meaning of the inscription. There are exceptions, generally when the person is famous — Amr ibn al-As, the Arab military commander who conquered Egypt, wrote his name in huge letters in the Valley of the Kings. More typically, we are left with only a mysterious name, or none at all.

Word Watch

Frescoes
Mural paintings made on wet plaster. Once the fresco dries, the painting becomes a part of the wall or ceiling.
Polish archaeologists
From the University of Warsaw’s Institute of Archaeology. They focused on the graffiti in the tomb of Ramses VI, who reigned over Egypt from 1145 to 1137BC.
Graffiti
From the plural form of the Italian word graffito, which means a scribbling. It is related to -graph (as in autograph), a suffix that comes from the Greek word for writing.
Sarcophagus
A stone coffin, generally displayed above ground and decorated with an engraving or sculpture.
Hieroglyphs
Pictures of things used as words in the writing system, hieroglyphics, in Ancient Egypt and elsewhere.
TripAdvisor
Hugely influential website featuring over half a billion user reviews and comments. Many hotels and restaurants have said that these reviews make or break their business.
Pompeii
An ancient Italian city which was buried following an eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. As a result, its features were remarkably well preserved, and it is one of Italy’s major tourist sites.