The study of ancient graffiti offers clues about the lives of women in ancient Rome.

“Graffiti” being an Italian word, it’s no surprise that someone — we don’t know who — scrawled two words about a woman on the wall of an ancient Roman tavern just a bit south of Naples. What is surprising is that Erika Zimmermann Damer, associate professor of classics and women, gender, and sexuality studies, is reading them two millennia later.

“Crocale barbata” is one of several thousand examples of Roman handwriting preserved in Egypt, along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and in the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Its literal meaning is something like “bearded Crocale.” Crocale is a female name of the era, so this graffito is probably a joke or insult. For Damer, it’s also an entry point into a much wider study of women in Roman graffiti, the first research of its kind.

Studying graffiti allows the study of everyone.

Romans wrote graffiti everywhere — in markets and temples, in taverns, and in their homes. Graffiti offers a broader window on Roman history than other Roman writing, which was almost exclusively written by elites, she said.

“Studying graffiti allows the study of everyone — including the enslaved and free,” she said. “I want to see where women have a tangible physical impact.”

So far, she has analyzed more than 1,000 graffiti and found references to women in roughly 20 percent of them. Where she is finding these references has been a surprise.

“They’re showing up everywhere,” she said. “My work focuses on women’s agency. To see women’s names everywhere challenges the expectation we have” that women had little influence in many parts of Roman society.

The research, she said, “gives voice to the silences we have tended to put in our writing of Roman history.”