What comes to mind when you hear the word “graffiti”? Maybe spray-painted walls or pen-covered bathroom stalls? Graffiti is typically thought of as a rebellious act by young people looking to make a mark in a public place, but graffiti has existed for thousands of years. And while most graffiti is deemed damaging or degrading to the place in which it was written, we can actually learn a lot from the graffiti created people of the past.
The runic inscriptions carved into the walls of the Maeshowe grave-mound in Orkney, Scotland are a great example of medieval graffiti and its value. There are almost three-dozen inscriptions in the burial mound, which were found in 1861 and are thought to have been carved in the twelfth century due to their linguistics and word formations. Two of the inscriptions mention “Jerusalem-men”, or crusaders, which links them to Rognvald Kali Kolsson, a Norseman who was appointed Earl of Orkney in 1129. He assembled a group of men in Orkney to go on a pilgrimage in 1150, and they might have stopped at Maeshowe on their way.
The runic graffiti at Maeshowe is useful because it gives a sense of what life was like during the twelfth century in Orkney, as well as what the burial mound was used for during that time. Most of the graffiti is similar to modern graffiti in that it simply states the name of the person who created it. One carving reads, “Tholfr Kolbainsson cut these Runes (on) this cave” (see image below). While there are crosses and religious messages referring to crusaders, there are also writings that might refer to sexual acts committed in the cave. One such inscription reads, “Ingibjorg, the fair widow. Many a women has gone stooping in here. A great show-off.” While “stooping” may refer to the bending required to enter the hill, it can also be translated as “being disgraced.” In any case, these inscriptions show that women as well as men used the burial mound. Other carvings on the walls mention hidden treasure in the mound, but it is unclear if such a thing ever truly existed.
All in all, this graffiti can be seen as contributive rather than damaging to Maeshowe. It provides evidence for the Christianization of Orkney, as well as the literacy of its people. The inscriptions help us connect to past people, places, and events, in a much more informal and improvisational manner than most “authorized” literature. And in many ways, this medieval graffiti is not much different than modern graffiti. It is simply evidence of people wanting to leave a mark, to record their existence at a specific moment in time and say, “I was here.”
For a more in-depth look at these runes, as well as a bibliography of sources, check out my webpage on the Maeshowe inscriptions.