For cultures that depend on the sea for survival, ships serve as a crucial means of undertaking voyages, transportation, and trade. Yet the same vessels that create essential networks of connectivity can also become a major threat when used for warfare or piracy. This range of roles meant that ships sometimes elicited very different reactions from terrestrial viewers in the past. People may have rejoiced as a vessel appeared on the horizon, knowing that it carried desirable goods or ferried loved ones safely home. In unsettled times, though, that initial glimpse of a ship could be the first warning of an impending attack. Sailors on board the ships would have entertained yet another range of emotions. For them, the ship became their entire world for days or weeks on end, not to mention their sole source of safety. This entwinning of the survival of the ship with the survival of its crew is one reason why mariners can develop a strong attachment to the ship they serve on. Such vessels could become a key part of their identity or a subject of deep personal affection. Ships are, therefore, not just simply physical vessels: they hold a deep cultural and emotional power in maritime communities. They can symboliseboth hope and fear, depending on the perspective of those encountering them.
One humble product of this relationship has received growing attention in recent years: ship graffiti. A recent study of such images on the Maltese Islands has revealed an abundance of examples, which together span thousands of years. As well as emphasising a fascination with shipping on the archipelago, with examples running all of the way from prehistory through to the modern era, the practice raises questions about why these unofficial images were made, and what meaning(s) they had. Some of the renderings are comparatively simple, but others are far from being crude doodles, including details such as rigging, gun ports, and even – at times – the crew. For the purposes of this article, the term ‘ship graffiti’ is defined as images that have been deliberately etched into hard surfaces, normally stone walls of buildings, and depict watercraft such as ships. At the time of writing, the corpus of known examples runs to hundreds. To appreciate why ships occur so frequently, it is helpful to consider the location and history of the islands.
Heart of the sea
Malta lies in the centre of the Mediterranean basin, and is most easily accessible via Sicily. The Maltese archipelago comprises two main islands: Malta and Gozo, which are connected by a maritime channel. Human activity can be securely traced back about 9,000 years, with the most celebrated element of prehistoric activity presented by a range of magnificent megalithic monuments, including the Tarxien temples, which date to the 4th millennium BC. The earliest evidence for etched ship graffiti in Malta occurs somewhat later, in the Bronze Age (c.1600 BC). At that time, the Tarxien temples seem to have been reused as a cemetery, and a stele found at the site was adorned with various renderings of prehistoric boats.
Following the Bronze Age, the Maltese archipelago experienced frequent shifts in political and economic status, reflecting political changes under way in the wider Mediterranean world. The central location of the islands within the Mediterranean meant that they repeatedly proved desirable to groups vying to expand their influence across the sea. As a consequence, by 700 BC, Malta was controlled by the Phoenicians, who found that the archipelago offered a convenient trading hub for colonies dependent on merchandise being transported by sea from east to west. In time, the Phoenicians gave way to the Carthaginians, who were particularly interested in north–south links across the Mediterranean. The Punic period, though, was destined to prove short lived, with Malta subsequently absorbed into the Roman Empire. The Roman occupation made full use of facilities that had been developed by the previous powers, ensuring maritime activity did not dwindle. Indeed, from the point of view of the graffiti, it became rather more visible. While Phoenician and Carthaginian shipping does not currently seem to be attested, the style and context of etchings at the multi-period site of Tas-Silġ, in a tomb at Ħal Far, within St Paul’s Catacombs, and within the Marsa Hypogeum, point to a Roman-era date. Although these examples only constitute a handful of the total number of ship graffiti in Malta, they still serve as a valuable source of evidence for maritime activity during this period.
Following Roman domination, Malta underwent a brief period of Byzantine rule, which was contested with increasing confidence by the Arabs. During this uncertain period, ships approaching the archipelago must often have made terrestrial observers wonder if they were harbingers of another looming political and cultural shift. Sure enough, this eventually came to pass, when the Arabs captured the islands in the 9th century AD. Next, in the 11th century, it was the Normans’ turn to invade. Eventually, in 1530, Malta was entrusted to the Order of St John, but even then maritime threats – be they corsairs or ships of the Ottoman Empire – remained a routine hazard. In response, important harbours were fortified, while key coastal trading routes were protected with towers. Doubtless the knights’ labours to ensure security stemmed in part from a desire to safeguard the harbours housing their own fleet. Even so, coastal areas became a hub of activity, which provided both livelihoods and protection for the local population. This ushered in a lengthy era of energetic maritime activity, which is amply reflected in the graffiti record. Indeed, ships dating to this period form the majority of examples found on the archipelago.
Another spell of political instability resulted in French occupation at the end of the 18th century, before the archipelago was declared a British protectorate in the 19th century. At that time, the British Navy was a powerful force that was capable of protecting the islands from maritime threats, and also benefited from central-Mediterranean harbours. Naval interest resulted in major infrastructure projects at key maritime facilities, such as the Grand Harbour in Valletta. The activity underpinning this investment is reflected in the wealth of ship graffiti etched into the new harbour facilities. During this period, many locals took the opportunity to make a living that was linked in one way or another to the provision of maritime services.
Ship graffiti are a relatively recent subject of study in Malta. Naturally, locals have long been aware of the images that adorn buildings in their villages, but it was only when Joe Muscat started undertaking formal research on them in 1934 that these graffiti began to be accepted as valuable historical evidence in their own right. This, in turn, inspired efforts to preserve ship graffiti. Nowadays, renovation works on historic public buildings are undertaken with great sensitivity, which has led to an increase in the discovery of these intriguing historical assets. Naturally, ships are just one type of iconographic representation that can be etched into stone. Other forms of graffiti present on the islands include depictions of human figures, examples of other modes of transport, symbols – such as the eight-pointed Maltese cross – religious iconography, animals, text, and numbers. An understanding of ship graffiti can sometimes be aided by their relationship with other surrounding etchings.
Another important factor when it comes to understanding the ship graffiti is their precise location. As a rule of thumb, these images are normally found on stone masonry forming part of an existing structure. Building types bearing graffiti can be categorised as ancient sites, parish churches, filial churches, fortifications, public buildings, and private buildings. This range might be taken to indicate that they can essentially appear anywhere, but it is noticeable that the walls of religious buildings host the largest proportion of ship graffiti.
It is clear, too, that the phenomenon of ship graffiti is not restricted to maritime hubs and coastal localities. Instead, inland towns and villages such as Mdina, Birkirkara, Attard, Mosta, Qormi, and Żebbuġ also boast concentrations of such imagery. This superficially surprising distribution may help us understand who was responsible for creating the images. Birkirkara and Qormi are both historically populous centres of habitation, for example, and the wealth of graffiti is likely to reflect the fact that, between the 16th and early 20th centuries, many local males found gainful employment at sea. When it comes to churches, it would be natural to suspect that the practice of etching ship graffiti might be connected to the patron saint of the chosen building. This does not seem to hold true, though, as a chapel dedicated to St Roche (a saint with no apparent maritime links) in Balzan village boasts a much larger number of ship graffiti than churches and chapels elsewhere in the settlement. Another curious feature is that ship graffiti are sometimes concentrated on specific walls of a building, becoming sparse or altogether absent in other parts of the structure. The Attard parish church dedicated to St Mary offers an example of this, as several ship graffiti have been discovered on one of the church’s north-facing outer walls.
As has been noted, the quality of the rendering of the ships ranges widely in both accuracy and detail. Some vessels are truthfully rendered, leaving the type of ship easily identifiable. But this is not the case for all ship graffiti, as some are more stylised or just simple etchings that do little more than evoke the impression of a vessel. In other cases, key features are emphasised by inflating their size, making them disproportionately larger than the other elements. By studying the typology of the ships – where discernible – alongside the presence of additional details, and the age of the building it adorns, it often becomes possible to offer a tentative date for a ship graffito.
When considering the corpus of Maltese ship graffiti as a whole, most display forms or details belonging to the period 1530-1798, when the Order of St John ruled the islands. It is not surprising therefore that galleys – the main fighting ships of the Order – are commonly encountered. Alongside these galleys, other types include the formidable ship-of-the-line (introduced to the Order’s navy after 1700) and vessels known as capitana and tartana, which are identifiable from the form of the hull and the style of the rigging. The inclusion of details such as cannon ports, flags, shrouds and other rigging details, coats of arms, and crew point to many of the graffitists having a strong familiarity with these ships. Interestingly, when these images include a depiction of the crew, it is often in the context of naval combat, which, as we will see, may help explain the ‘inspiration’ and motivations for some ship graffiti.
Ship graffiti datable to the British period (1800-1964) are, just like their predecessors, found on buildings that range from the religious, through fortifications and public buildings, to private dwellings. Classic ship-types of the era that are encountered in graffiti guise include steamships, freighters, light boats known as pinnace, and some warships, including the renowned dreadnought battleships. These are characterised by distinctive features, such as steam wheels, smokestacks, guns, torpedo net booms, and flags. Maltese traditional seacraft sometimes also make an appearance, and can be identified by straight bows and traditional spritsail or lateen rigging. Conveniently for the archaeologist, modern ship graffiti are sometimes accompanied by dates, text, and names, initials, or symbols.
So, what can be said about why individuals were moved to etch ships into stone? Unsurprisingly, this subject has provoked much discussion. One working hypothesis is that ships engraved on to churches and chapels were a form of poor man’s ex-voto – a vow made in supplication for deliverance from a dangerous encounter at sea. To fulfil this vow, wealthy individuals – or a group who pooled their resources – could commission a painting of the incident and offer it to be hung in a particular church as a gift of thanks. Ship graffiti may thus be considered as a somewhat more budget manifestation of this fulfilment of a vow – possibly one made by those lower down in the shipboard hierarchy.
Whereas the poor man’s ex-voto presents a very plausible proposition for graffiti etched on places of worship, this hypothesis does not hold water when it comes to those adorning the walls of structures that are not deemed to be religious in nature, such as private houses. One explanation for ship graffiti in such places is that they are merely expressions of a personal affinity with boats, and reveal no more than the graffitist having time on their hands. This consideration is especially likely to hold true for graffiti found in prison cells, for if there is one thing that inmates had in abundance, it was time. Even then, though, it says something that of all the potential subjects available to the creator, they selected a ship.
Regardless of whether the graffiti serve as an expression of an individual’s connection with the sea or a form of ex-voto practice, it is certain that these images are a reminder of Malta’s remarkable maritime heritage. The study of ship graffiti continues to reveal a range of connections between individuals and ships. In this regard, the graffiti can be likened to a window, allowing present-day researchers a glimpse of the creators of the graffiti. Even though a large quantity of ship graffiti has now been discovered and documented in Malta, fresh discoveries are still being made. This is why Heritage Malta has just launched a website for communicating and sharing this niche segment of maritime heritage (see ‘Further information’ box below). Via the website, Heritage Malta has allowed this wonderful masonry expression of millennia of maritime comings and goings to be enjoyed by a global audience. In this regard, the ships remembered in the graffiti are still serving to connect the Maltese islands to the wider world.
Heritage Malta recently went live with a website curated by the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit of Heritage Malta. This portal is serving to introduce the public to ship graffiti discovered in the Maltese islands. Research and education for personal interest is facilitated by means of the ‘Map and Gallery’ tab on the website, making it possible for people to experience some of the ship graffiti digitally. The website also allows individuals to submit examples of ship graffiti that have not yet been officially documented. This citizen science project aims to increase awareness of ship graffiti as a source of historical information and a relic of past societies living in Malta. It encourages the public to adopt a proactive approach, too, in the study of Maltese maritime history. The website forms part of the Malta Ship Graffiti Project and may be accessed through the link: https://maltashipgraffiti.org.
All images: courtesy of Timmy Gambin and Julia Zerafa, unless otherwise stated