Graffiti & Archaeology I: Bahamian Ship Graffiti

Tracing of a sloop graffito from a slave house, Clifton, New Providence

Electronically leafing through archaeological marginalia is probably an overly-obvious habit of mine, and occasionally I’ll find fascinating bits that I’ll throw up on my tumblr blog, to put aside for later while I get back to the main research topic at hand. I’ve been looking into the serious study of graffiti within archaeology for a project I have brewing, and some unexpectedly wonderful things have came up.

Graffito of early-19th-century British warship, New Providence

Grace Turner conducted a fascinating research project (for her MA thesis, if I glean correctly) regarding graffiti inside the slave cabins in the Bahamas. In many cases ships were etched into the plaster and stone walls of these small buildings, and from these drawings she makes inferences about the ships that are depicted in the graffiti. There were almost 100 instances of this type of graffiti and sloops, warships, and schooners were drawn in such a way that indicated that the inhabitants of these buildings (presumably enslaved people) were “familiar with ship construction and rigging.”

Ocean-sailing vessels at anchor, Nassau Harbour. One has masts and smoke stacks.

Yet these graffiti-ships “do not appear as decorative or representational images in other Bahamian contexts,” implying (as Carver says, that “Bahamian ship graffiti did not serve any aesthetic or decorative purpose.” She then connects the graffiti with a tradition of “wrecking” which involves both the court-endorsed practice of salvage and a more clandestine practice of putting lights on the coast in improper places, for ships to follow and crash upon the rocks.

Schooner with raking masts, Sapodilla Hill, Providenciales

Turner also describes each of the sites in detail, considering where the graffiti occurred, who was living there at the time, what tools were used to inscribe the stone and plaster surfaces, and even how much light was available at the time. Her conclusions about the socio-economic status of the graffiti artists and their intentions in depicting these ships trails off a bit–like a good archaeologist she’s trying to consider more than one explanation for these phenomena. If these lower-classed Bahamians were making plans and wrecking ships it certainly implies a willingness to prey upon the very same ships that might have brought them to the New World.

Kudos to Grace Turner and her interesting research! It must have been difficult to locate and draw all of the ships for her project.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

5 thoughts on “Graffiti & Archaeology I: Bahamian Ship Graffiti”

  1. When I first saw the images in this posting, I assumed they would be about Byzantine graffiti. Such ship graffiti is so common in Byzantine churches in Greece. I can send you some of the bibliography, starting with Otto F. A. Meinardus, “Medieval Navigation According to the Akidographemata in Byzantine Churches and Monasteries.” Deltion tes Christianikes Archaiologikes Etaireias 6 (1970-72), pp. 29-52, pls. 17-20. What is crazy is some of these ships are found in chapels up in the mountains and nowhere close to water. I don’t think there is a definitive study of them (but I may not be up to the literature), but they’ve been discussed as Christian afterlife imagery. Very cool to know that of the Bahamas comparanda.

  2. Hello,

    Thank you so much for the references–I’ve also found a mention of ship graffiti in Byzantine churches in Bulgaria! Very interesting, even if I’m not a nautical archaeologist.

    Cheers, and good to hear from you, Kostis.


  3. I’ve seen similar ship graffiti in a 19th century barn in Delaware. I think maybe ships are very compelling as images, thus their widespread use in graffiti.

  4. I really like your postings. Thanks for sharing, and please continue to post your findings – it’s *super* old school graffiti art!

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