Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean

Natasha sheldon - December 9, 2017

Graffiti are words or pictures informally inscribed or painted on walls, floors, and objects. Modern graffiti can be a form of protest or individual display. They can be regarded as public eyesores or works of meaningful art, depending on context or viewpoint.

However, graffiti is no modern phenomenon. As the Italian origin of the word –graffio- suggests, the earliest graffiti was scratched on cave walls, as a way of communicating messages or as a form of self-expression. As time past, graffiti was used not only to pass on messages but to offering advice, create art and even ensure magical protection.

Historical graffiti also fills in the gaps in history. It resurrects lost words and languages not found in books and texts. Graffiti even preserves the names and details of the lives of ordinary people not recorded in the history books. It records peoples’ preoccupations, their beliefs, what they feared, and their politics- even their love lives. It helps us appreciate the differences and similarities between people then and now.

People have discovered ancient graffiti in every culture and context: in public and private buildings, on rocks, cave walls- even on ceilings. Here are twelve examples from around the world.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Graffiti on the facade of Asellinas’ Tavern, Pompeii. Copyright Natasha Sheldon.

Pompeiian Graffiti

To date, archaeologists have identified 2800 pieces of electoral graffiti around Pompeii. Painted at night, on the walls of buildings along main thoroughfares, they were an entirely official way of drumming up widespread support for candidates for public office.

Some recommended candidates by their good character: “I beg you to elect Publius Furius duumvir, a good man.” Others used the weight of the candidates’ supporters to try and sway others: “The fullers all ask for Holconius Priscus as Duumvir” declared a notice on the frontage of Stephanus’s Fullery. Others candidates dispensed with persuasion and went for all-out bribery. In an election notice painted on the wall of the House of Trebius Valens, Lucius Satrius Valens offered “20 pairs of gladiators” for the entertainment of the town if he was successfully elected.

Different pieces of graffiti can also be put together to form a picture of individuals’ lives. The Pompeiian baker, Paquius Proculus is one such case. Proculus had a house along the Via del Abbondanza and had become wealthy enough to stand for election. Graffiti on the front of his house declared he was standing for the position of duumvir-one of the two chief magistrates of Pompeii. We know he was successful- because of graffiti daubed on the outside of the amphitheater, declaring he had won.

It was also typical for enthusiasts of the games to daub the results of matches on the tombs that lined the roads leading into and out of Pompeii. They give us the names and identities of some of Pompeii’s’ gladiators. Some gladiators went by single names such as ‘Felix’- a sure sign they were slaves. Others, like the popular and successful Marcus Attilius, were free volunteers. We know this because Attilius sported a first name and a clan name.

We also know Attilius was a successful gladiator from the number of times ‘V’ for victor appeared above his name. The graffiti also tells us that it was far more common for losers to be reprieved than killed outright. The ‘M’ for missus- the Latin word for ‘reprieve’ is far more common than the of ‘P’ for perrit or death.

Some gladiators liked to use graffiti to boast of their prowess out of the arena. The Thracian gladiator Celadus boasted on the walls of the gladiator barracks, that he “makes the girls sigh.” But not everyone in Pompeii was lucky in love. “Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!” declared one disillusioned man on a wall of the tavern of Verecundus.

Pompeii’s sexually explicit graffiti, however, is by no means unique- as can be seen at Astypalaia, a remote island in the Aegean.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
The Astypalaia Graffiti. Google Images.

The Astypalaia Graffiti

Astypalaia is a remote island in the Aegean. It is rocky, windswept and until recently best known for its ancient cemeteries. However, in 2010, Dr. Andreas Vlachopoulos, a specialist in prehistoric archaeology was leading students in fieldwork on the island, when he chanced upon a curious discovery. For carved on the limestone rocks overlooking the Bay of Vathy were a series of sexually explicit graffiti, thought to be around 2500 years old.

Before the erotica was inscribed onto the rocks, the inhabitants of Astypalaia confined their graffiti to motifs relating to the sea, which no doubt dominated island life. But between the fifth and sixth centuries BC, something changed. Pictures of at least four giant phalli appeared instead of the usual ships and the spirals representing waves. One from the fifth century showed two phalli with the name “Dion” underneath. Under another, the author boasts: “Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona.”

The inscriptions are important on one level because they show us that it wasn’t merely the elite who were literate. “Whoever wrote the erotic inscription referring to Timiona was very well trained in writing,” said Angelos Matthaiou, for more than 25 years the general secretary at the Greek Epigraphic Society in a 2014 interview with The Guardian newspaper. “The letters have been very skillfully inscribed on the face of the rock, evidence that it was not just philosophers, scholars and historians who were trained in the art of writing but ordinary people living on islands too.”

Perhaps more importantly, the graffiti shows that same-sex relationships were also acceptable in everyday Greek society, and not just amongst elite warriors and legendary heroes. For the sexual conquests described in the graffiti of Astypalaia are between men. Experts now believe that during the fifth and sixth centuries, Astypalaia housed a military garrison- making soldiers the authors of the graffiti. These soldiers were not shy about their conquests- they were proud of them- hence the size of the phallic symbols and the boldness of their boasts.

Astypalaias’ erotic graffiti is amongst the oldest in the world. Nearly as old, although nowhere near as explicit, is graffiti from the Middle East that provides the only source for a long, lost language.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Safaitic text from the Wadi Sham inscribed boustrophedon (CRAI 1996, 461 no. E2. Google Images

Safaitic Graffiti

Over the last 140 years, explorers of the desert areas of Syria, Jordan and South Arabia have discovered over 20,000 examples of a unique style of desert graffiti. Scratched onto the rocks with flints, Bedouin tribes used this graffiti between the fourth and first centuries BC to mark territory, inscribe grave markers and communicate information. The script, which is known today as Safaitic, was incomprehensible to those in the settled regions, who spoke Greek or Aramaic making Safaitic a secret Bedouin language.

Safaitic is very similar to the southern Semitic language used in western Arabia and Ethiopia. However, its structure is entirely different, meaning it would have been incomprehensible to those outside the circle that used it. For the Bedouin, Safaitic was purely functional. It was not used to write books, tell stories or create poetry. They only used it when it was needed. Nor was it taught formerly. Its structure was also highly fluid, with spellings and use of letters varying from individual to individual. It was developed to be used purely in practical desert signposts

Men, women, and slaves created these graffiti signposts. The messages they created using Safaitic were highly personal and of limited interest to those outside their social group. Some Safaitic graffiti was used to mark the last resting place of loved ones. Others record the names of significant Bedouin families and act as a way of marking the extent of their ‘territory.’

Most, however, were of no interest to anyone other than the writer. Some were prayers. One example, now preserved in the National Museum of Saudi Arabia asks for the god E’lat, an ancient northern Arabian god, to show the writer some goodwill and grant them peace. Others expressed concerns regarding survival- rather like public diary entries. “Lkhazan prepared for the winter,” reads one such example.

It was not just the Bedouin who were worried about the effect of the climate on their lives. The Dayu Cave in China preserves graffiti with a very particular climatic concern.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Chinese Drought Graffiti from the Dayu Cave, created in 1894. Google Images

Chinese Drought Graffiti

In the Quinling Mountains of China is the Dayu Cave, where, between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, people daubed the cave walls in a very particular type of graffiti. For hundreds of years, during times of drought, the local people, would flee to the caves to offer prayers for rain, which the graffiti records on the cave walls. Around 70 examples of this so-called “drought graffiti” can be seen in the cave today, providing a comprehensive account of climatic upheaval and its effects on local communities.

The graffiti was discovered by accident in 2009 by Liangcheng Tan of the Chinese Academy of Science, who was part of a team collecting samples of mineral deposits. The scientists found that the graffiti were carefully dated and began in the late fifteen hundreds. All recorded prayers for rain. The people who painted these pleas on the cave walls were not just simple country folk but included the regions’ highest officials. “On June 8, 46th year of the Emperor Kangxi period, Qing dynast, the governor of Ningqiang district came to the cave to pray for rainy” read one inscription from 1707.

The drought graffiti went on as late as the nineteenth century- showing a continuous belief that during rainless periods, the gods could offer aid- or else a desperation so strong that people were willing to try anything. In 1891, the local mayor, Huaizong Zhu led more than 200 people to the cave, along with a fortune teller named Zhenrong Ran to hold a ceremony to pray for rain.

The dates of the graffiti correspond to historical records which show how drought had catastrophic effects on local communities. In the sixteenth century, one drought was so severe it led to two harvests failing and mass starvation that culminated in cannibalism. The 1891 episode led to civil unrest. By using the drought graffiti in conjunction with analysis of the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in stalagmite formations in the cave, scientists have been able to identify seven drought periods in the last 500 years- and predict when the next one may occur.

But why did the people chose the Dayu cave to make their desperate petitions? The reason is, caves were seen to be the underworld realm of the gods-because even in drought periods, they were cold and wet. In other words, the people were bringing their troubles directly to the place they believed would offer a solution. This belief has led to a graffiti that is utterly unique; the only type in the world to document climatic change. However, the Chinese Drought graffiti is not the only graffiti with a religious slant.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
The Alexamenos Graffito. Google Images.

The Alexamenos Graffito

Up until the fourth century AD, the Romans took a rather dim view of Christianity. They also had a variety of funny misconceptions about what the religion involved. “The religion of the Christians is foolish, “ stated Roman advocate Marcus Cornelius Fronto in the second century AD “inasmuch as they worship a crucified man and even the instrument itself of his punishment. They are said to worship the head of an ass and even the nature of their father.”

This idea of Ass worship may well come from Tacitus. The historian recounts how after their expulsion from Egypt, the Jews were lost in the desert and on the verge of collapse due to a lack of food and water. Suddenly, someone spotted a herd of asses who led them to an oasis. Once safely in the Promised Land, in the temple at Jerusalem, the grateful Jews “Consecrated an image of the animal which had delivered them.” (Histories, V3). The Romans believed the Christians were continuing this tradition.

Until the sixth century AD, Christian art rarely depicted the crucifixion. However, sometime in the second century, someone scratched the image of a crucified man into the plaster of the Domus Gelotiana. The Domus was a part of the imperial palace and by this time had been turned into a boy’s school. It seems that someone in the school added the graffito- using the standard Roman misconceptions about the Christian God-to produce a satirical piece of anti-Christian imagery.

The graffito is known as ‘The Alexamenos Graffito’ because of its inscription, which read: “Alexamenos worships God.” The artist depicted Alexamenos’ god as a man on a T shaped cross, his arms tied to the crossbeam while his feet rested on a shelf. Instead of a human head, however, the crucified man has the head of an ass. Below him, is a figure- presumably Alexamenos with his arms raised in supplication. The graffito is explicitly anti-Christian. Ironically, it is also the earliest known representation of the crucifixion.

Centuries later, however, it was the Christians who were doodling on their church walls.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Straw man graffiti. Photo: Lincolnshire Medieval Graffiti Project.

Medieval Church Grafitti

It seems that drawing in church- and on its’ the walls too, was quite acceptable in the medieval period. A recent survey of British churches has uncovered (from Norfolk alone) 28,000 examples of doodled pictures, charms- and magical symbols on church walls. They survive because surprisingly, they were never painted over- indicating the church either turned a blind eye or actually endorsed these additions to the décor.

In the case of most of the graffiti, this is understandable because the doodles seem to be a form of prayer, scratched into the walls of the church by people who probably thought this would lend a greater potency to their hopes and desires. Ships are a common motif, either as a petition for a safe sea voyage- or as thanks to god for a successful journey. Other common prayer motifs include windmills, which links to grain and bread- essential staples in medieval life.

However, some of the church graffiti could be motifs surviving from pagan traditions that were recontextualized as Christian. One is the image of the straw man, an example of which can be seen near the entrance of Cranwell Parish church in Lincolnshire. Straw men were believed to be fertility figures. Each harvest time, remnants of the year’s crops were used to form straw images. These images were burnt and their ashes scattered across the fields to promote a good yield in the new years’ harvest.Their appearance in church indicates the power of God was being called upon to give the sacrifice a greater potency.

Other graffiti served no other purpose than to relieve boredom. However, they provide modern historians with useful details about medieval life. From figure drawings of saints, kings, queens and ordinary people, we can learn a great deal about styles of garments. The fashions depicted can also help historians date the graffiti as people did not begin to inscribe dates until the 1700s. This is because literacy began to increase around this time- a fact that perhaps explains why the graffiti images started to die out.

Another common form of graffiti motif in churches was the “compass drawn designs.” Some people believe they were the result of trainee masons learning to use their compasses. However Matt Champion, a medieval graffiti expert believes they were demon traps. Demons for some reason were compelled to follow lines to their very end. Once an unwary demon was lured into the circular design, it would be trapped, doomed to follow the line of the circle forever. These circles and other magical graffiti could also be found in other English buildings.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Apotropaic graffiti on a barn door. google Images

Apotropaic Graffiti

Apotropaic graffiti or witch marks are a particular kind of graffiti designed to ward off evil. In England, they were commonly inscribed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The markings were usually scratched in the woodwork or on walls around chimneys, windows, and doors as a way of trapping evil spirits as they entered the building. They can, however, be found anywhere in the house where evil could lurk. At Knole House in Kent, the owners had warding signs carved into the woodwork of rooms set aside for a proposed visit of James I.

However, this magical graffiti is not just found in houses. It has been discovered in Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset, near to the stalagmite once passed off as the petrified body of a witch. It also appears in places where food and drink were stored. In the Tithe Barn at Bradford upon Avon in Wiltshire, apotropaic graffiti was inscribed inside to protect stored crops. At one point in its history, Shakespeares’ birthplace was a pub. Witch marks have been found contemporary with that period, on the stairs leading to the cellar where the beer was stored.

The most common form of apotropaic graffiti was the daisy wheel: a series of interlocking circles that formed a flower. However, they also took other forms. Intertwined ‘V’ and ‘M’ patterns have been found, signifying the Virgin Mary, as well as demon mazes, crisscross messes of lines designed to trap evil spirits. Pentangles have been found, and even teardrop shaped scorch marks made with candles.

The sudden appearance of this graffiti in the sixteenth century can be linked to the growing fear of witchcraft, which corresponded with the religious unrest caused by the rise of Protestantism and the break with Rome. Henry VIII passed the first specific witchcraft law in England in 1542 and James I fanned the flames of fear with his manic obsession with witchcraft in the early seventeenth century. However, witch marks began to die out in the nineteenth century. Society was becoming more rational- and, with the rise of the oil lamp, lighting in houses improved, making homes less gloomy and householders less likely to see evil lurking in the shadows.

Apotropaic Graffiti can also be found in the Tower of London, carved by prisoners awaiting their fate. But they are not the only graffiti prisoners left behind them there.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Graffito made of Anne Boleyns’ Falcon badge in the Tower of London- without its crown and scepter. Google Images.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is England’s’ most famous fortress. Over the years, its multitude of prisoners have left behind souvenirs of their stay, scratched into the floors and walls of their cells. This graffiti was served a multitude of purposes, recording the prisoners’ presence, or helping them stay sane while they waited to be released- or die.

Some of the graffiti consisted of nothing more than the prisoners’ name. Others used graffiti to mark the passage of their time in custody and help release the tension of their imprisonment. “Close prisoner, 32 weeks, 224 days 5376 hours,” wrote a T Salmon in his cell, just underneath a sketch of his coat of arms. Other prisoners were more verbose. “The more affliction we endure for Christ in this world, the more glory we shall get with Christ in the world to come,” Stated the philosophical Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, who carved these words into the chimney breast of his room in Beauchamp Tower.

Howard was imprisoned for his Catholicism and died in the tower. However much he may have felt he was suffering during his incarceration, it was nothing compared to Jesuit priest Henry Walpole who was manacled 14 times during his stay in Beauchamp tower in 1594. Walpole however, also managed to leave his mark, carving his name and those of saints’ Peter, Paul, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory, possibly as a way of using his faith as a focus to survive.

Other graffiti tells prisoners’ stories. In the Bell Tower, Elizabethan Irish rebel Thomas Miagh inscribed how: “By torture strange my trouth was tried yet of my libertie denied, therefore, reson hath me perswadyd pasyens must be ymb rasyd thogh hard fortune chasyth me wyth smart yet paseyns shall prevail.” Around twenty years before, in 1560 Hew Draper, a Bristol innkeeper was charged and imprisoned for sorcery in Salt Tower. Draper pleaded not guilty- but contradicted this by scratching a horoscope for himself on the wall of his cell. Perhaps Draper, who was sick at the time, felt he had little to lose and needed a little hope.

Finally, there is graffiti linked to royalty who have lived and died in the tower. In Beauchamp tower, a poignant comment on the fall of Queen Anne Boleyn was carved- possibly by one of the men imprisoned with her. The hasty carving, made in the floor of a first-floor cell shows the Queens’ falcon badge- minus its crown and scepter.

The tower of London, however, wasn’t the first famous world monument to have been graffitied.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Hieroglyphic graffiti from the Great Pyramid, Egypt. Google Images.

Hieroglyphic Graffiti

In 2011, Zahi Hawass, former head of Egypt’s’ Supreme Council of Antiquities, organized an exploration of two eight-inch shafts deep within the great pyramid at Giza. The purpose of the shafts, located between the King and Queens chambers are unknown but, using a robot called Djedi, after the magician consulted when the pyramid was planned, Hawass hoped to reveal their mysteries. Instead, the robots’ flexible “micro snake” camera discovered something else: 4500-year-old graffiti left by the work teams who built the pyramid.

These illicit scribblings inside the pyramids most inaccessible areas were never meant to be seen. However, they have provided a great deal of information about how the workers were organized and motivated when building the pyramid. Daubed in red paint, the hieroglyphics reveal that the men were organized into small work gangs. To give an extra sense of cohesion and identity, these bands all adopted individual names, each prefixed with the name of the Pharoah they were laboring for: Khufu.

Some of the names were relatively neutral such as ” The Green One.” However, other names indicate that the gangs were highly motivated to do the best job possible. The team that chose the name “Endurance” were intent on seeing the job through to the bitter end, no matter what the obstacles, while the “perfection gang” were focusing on being the best. The position of one set of graffiti showed that these gangs often competed against each other. One section of the tunnel had graffiti from one group on one side and a different team opposite it, suggesting different gangs labored on the same jobs but competed against each other to be the quickest and the best.

The graffiti also shows how the workers felt about their employer. One gang, who scribbled their name close to the burial chamber of Pharoah Khufu himself called themselves “The Friends of Khufu Gang,” demonstrating a familiar goodwill towards the King they labored for.

Egyptian workers were not the only people to deface their national monuments. The Mayans did it too.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
Tikal Graffiti. Google Images.

Mayan Graffiti at Tikal

The Mayan culture began around the 2600BC. By 250 AD, it was at its peak, covering an area which spanned Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Northern Belize and Western Honduras until its sudden collapse during the eight and ninth centuries. Mayan society was organized into around 20 city-states, but from 300AD until the cultures’ collapse, its three most important centers were at Copan, Palenque, and Copan. These centers were places of intellect and worship, dominated by great observatories, palaces, and temples. However, the magnificence of the architecture did not deter the graffiti.

Tikal, situated in the lowlands of Guatemala is a site particularly noted for the defacement of its monuments by the random etching of visitors. Plaster walls, floors- even the benches in the temples and palaces of the central acropolis, are covered with pictures of ceremonies, nobles, priests and real and fantastic beasts. Some seem to record events. One shows the execution of a prone figure confined between two poles, which warriors are impaling with an arrow or a spear. The question is, who made the graffiti, and why?

Some experts believe the pictures were drawn after Tikal’s’ demise. However, there is nothing is mocking about the figures, which would be expected if the graffiti had been created by those who followed the fallen Mayans. Instead, the graffiti seems to record Tikal in its glory days. The figures are very elite in style. They consist of nobles, priests, and the high-status buildings of the Acropolis. There is nothing every day about them. These details suggest to other experts that elite visitors who wanted to make their mark on the place and record events around them added the drawings while Tikal was at its peak.They may even have served a magical purpose.

It was not unknown for visitors at a great site to react in this way, as is shown by graffiti at the fortress/monastery of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
The Mirror Wall at Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. Google Images.

The Mirror Wall, at Sigiriya

In the fifth century AD, the Sri Lankan King, Kashyapa built a new home for his royal court at the mountain fortress of Sigiriya. The King lavishly decorated his new residence with fabulous frescos of the court ladies. These murals became a draw for thousands of visitors who flocked to the former royal palace between the sixth and the fourteenth centuries. They were also the inspiration for graffiti, which adorns Sigiriya’s equally famous Mirror Wall.

The Mirror Wall lay just beyond the frescos. It was built as a façade for the sheer rock wall that edged the path the visitors followed when passing to and from the pictures. Glazed with a smooth lime mortar, that was burnished to give the reflective sheen that gave the wall its name, the Mirror Wall was the perfect place for visitors overcome by their impressions of Sigiriya and its frescos, to unburden themselves. Much of the graffiti takes the form of poetry inspired by the murals and their impressive subject matter: the elegant “golden-skinned ladies” who were depicted in various states of undress.

One poem muses how one of the images: ” stirs to break the stillness and ask if we could bear to know her tragic story.” Others concentrate on the ladies attributes: “Ah the golden coloured one on the mountainside” eulogized one enamored poet, “who entices ones eye and mind and whose breasts, delightful to look at directed my mind to the intoxicated swans” Others were more poetical:” I became prostrate on this rock having seen my hearts content the five hundred damsels on the surface of the rock and having remembered one of them. Heaven itself does not take my mind.”

Some visitors were inspired by Sigiriya itself: “Having climbed (Sigiriya) I am delighted with the site created by the natural surroundings of Sri Lanka, “one visitor commented. Nor did everyone who wanted to make their mark on Sigiriya fancy themselves as a poet. “I am Budal who wrote this stated one visitors. ” I came with a crowd and saw Sihigiri. I did not write a song as many people have written them.”

The graffiti have helped experts identify 1000 previously unknown words used in the Sinhala language during the period in question. However, the identity of the visitors also tells us something about their motives for visiting Sigiriya in the first place. Of the 685 people identified, only 12 were women. These men came from all walks of life; they were officials and nobles, soldiers and metalworkers. It seemed for men at least, Sigiriya was all about the ladies.

Sri Lankan tourists were not the only ones who liked to leave their mark on the places they visited. So did the Vikings.

Not Your Average Neighborhood Graffiti: 12 Mysterious Graffiti Works from History and What they Mean
The faint remains of a runic Inscription on the Piraeus Lion. Google Images

Viking Graffiti

In 874 AD, 6000 Viking men were sent to the court of King Basil II in Byzantium as part of a peace treaty between the Emperor and the Kiev Vikings who had recently converted to Christianity. These mercenaries formed the basis of the Varangian guard, the elite bodyguards of the Eastern Roman emperor, a role that lasted until the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. The Emperor valued the Norse men for their fierceness and strength. Money attracted the Vikings: good pay, spoils of war, and first pick of the palace goods after an emperor died.

The Varangians made their mark on Constantinople- literally. In the late twentieth century, graffiti made by these Scandinavian guards was discovered in the western gallery of the former Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia. The graffiti consisted of randomly carved runes by Vikings who, like many other visitors to foreign lands, only wanted to record that they had been there. “Halfdan made these runes” read one inscription, while the other simply read “Arni”.

Constantinople was not the only place that visiting Vikings marked their presence. The Piraeus Lion, carved in the fourth century BC guarded the port of Athens until it was pillaged by the Venetians in the seventeenth century. The Lion was taken back to Venice to safeguard its lagoon instead. However, its new Italian owners were puzzled about a strange flowing script that adorned the Lions’ body. It certainly wasn’t Greek.

The mystery was solved in the eighteenth century when a Swedish diplomat, identified the letters as Viking runes. It seems that sometime in the eleventh century, visiting Varangians decided to use the lion to record some of their adventures. Rather creatively, they added their inscriptions in the shape of a lindworm, a type of Scandinavian dragon.

The runes are badly eroded but can still be read in part. “They cut him down in the midst of his forces. But in the harbor, the men cut runes by the sea in memory of Horsi, a good warrior. The Swedes set this on the lion.” stated one section. The left-hand side of the lion, meanwhile, preserves the reasons the Varangians were in Greece: “Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine on account of the revolt of the Greek people.” it states.” Dalk is detained captive in far lands. Egil is gone on an expedition with Ragnar into Romania and Armenia.”

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