When does vandalism become an archaeological feature?

When it’s done in antiquity, of course.

Below are some photos of a particular kind of vandalism commonly referred to as “pilgrim gouges.” I’ve noticed these peculiar scoops of stone in various photos of columns, ashlar blocks, monuments and so on, but never really stopped to think about what they were.

Pilgrim Gouges Avenue of the Sphinxes
Image by Cammyjams

In hindsight, all the examples I can think of or locate on the net or in books, are within reach of people. Still, my first guesses included eroded palimpsests and some sort of vandalism in antiquity.

Palimpsests in this sort of context are places where one set of inscriptions or a bas relief is removed or plastered over to create a new set of inscriptions or a new bas relief. This wasn’t an uncommon practice in ancient Egypt -sometimes one ruler wanted to substitute his own name or beatitudes or perhaps curses of an enemy. Sometimes a bit of vandalism occurred in antiquity when a subsequent ruler was unhappy with a predecessor or if a new culture just simply had no regard for a much older one. There are monuments with graffiti etched by Greeks and Romans in Egypt and there are monuments around Europe and the Middle East that have bullet holes that could only have been deliberate vandalism.

But these curious little scoops and gouges in the stones of Egyptian monuments and reliefs are something different. One thing they seem to have in common is that they are typically vertical and that they are deeper in the center, as if scooped out. Pilgrims and believers in magic scraped the stone to remove a fine dust, which they collected and mixed in a drink. By scraping out a portion of the temple or monument, the pilgrim hoped to obtain some of the power through sympathetic magic. This practice occurred from about the time of the New Kingdom to around the 5th century CE.[1].”

What’s interesting about the practice is the frequency and distribution of the “gouging.” Deeper gouges indicate more attention spent at a particular gouge over time (a single gouge probably wasn’t produced by a single pilgrim at a single visit), as do more gouges at a particular spot. The sphinx above, for instance, has more, deeper gouges than it’s neighbor tot he right. Both of these have more than other neighboring sphinxes, and so on, suggesting that the first two, in particular the first, has more perceived power than the others.

Pilgrim Gouges on Ramses II's Treaty
Frequency & Distribution -not random

Or perhaps more accessibility. Gouging by pilgrims was not random and the distribution tended to be concentrated in certain areas such as “outer corners of buildings, hypostyle pillars, and certain hieroglyphs and divine faces on outside walls[1].” So while there was the concern of the object’s power, there was also an obvious concern of accessibility. The sphinx above may have been easier to scrape without being observed by those that might interfere (caretakers of the temple) or it might have been perceived as the more powerful of the sphinxes (i.e. its position in the line along the avenue). But it wasn’t always an image or a temple, which are obvious places to perceive power, but also writing. The gouges on the Ramses II‘s treaty with the Hittites above may be written on a temple wall, but the gouges themselves are grouped together in ways that suggest it wasn’t the wall or the temple that had the power, but the words of the inscriptions that resided there.

Pilgrim gouges are a fascinating topic. Anyone who’s visited Karnak or stared at photos of Karnak for hours as I have will probably have noticed them. I can’t believe I’ve never really questioned what they were or how they came to be until a few days ago! So my thanks for that bit of inquiry goes to a reader of my blog that had a question about them. I think she’ll agree the bit of research we each did was fun. She actually found the answers faster than I, pointing me in the right direction.

Thanks, L!

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References and Notes:
  1. Frankfurter, David (2000). Religion in Roman Egypt: Assimilation and Resistance. Princeton University Press, pp. 51-52 [] []
About Carl Feagans 312 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.