Epigraphy

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inscription

inscription, writing on durable material. The art is called epigraphy. Modern inscriptions are made for permanent, monumental record, as on gravestones, cornerstones, and building fronts; they are often decorative and imitative of ancient (usually Roman) methods. The only current use of inscriptions that has no accepted substitute, the marking of graves, is also the oldest continuous use. The first writing was probably universally executed on hard materials, mainly stones (rough or hewn), clay (often marked when wet), metal, bone, and ivory. When light materials like paper were developed, it was possible to distinguish between writing for temporary use and permanent recording, and epigraphy became restricted.

For the history and examples of epigraphy, see histories of appropriate cultures, countries, languages, literatures, and periods of art. See also calligraphy.

Non-Western Epigraphy

Outside Western history, epigraphy was of importance in two independent civilizations—in the remarkable art of the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec cultures (see pre-Columbian art and architecture), and in China. Also notable is the exotic mid-Pacific epigraphy of Easter Island. The earliest Chinese inscriptions are on pottery (c.2500 B.C.) and bronze (c.1500 B.C.), and there are later writings on bone and tortoise shells. Dating from the classical period, before 200 B.C., are odes on great stone drums found in Shaanxi. The invention of paper (c.A.D. 100) ended the role of epigraphy in China. The bilingual inscriptions near Orkhon contain minor Chinese texts as well as the oldest known Turkic material.

The Hindus used palm leaves for writing early in their history, and their inscriptions do not record the older forms of their language. The most important are Prakrit inscriptions of Aśoka (3d cent. B.C.). The first Sanskrit inscriptions date from some centuries later.

Epigraphy in the Ancient World

The course of Western epigraphy begins in Mesopotamia and on the Nile. The Mesopotamian writing, cuneiform, was invented c.4000 B.C., probably by the Sumerians. It was created for writing on sun-dried brick. This combines durability with lightness and contrasts favorably with all other epigraphic materials in convenience of making and handling. It thus anticipates some of the merits of paper (see Babylonia; Assyria; Hittites; Elam; for notes on examples of epigraphic treasure-troves, see Uruk; Lagash; Nineveh; Nippur; Susa; Tell el Amarna; Boğazköy).

An Eastern congener of Mesopotamian epigraphy is found in the seal inscriptions on faience and ivory (c.3000 B.C.) at the archaeological sites of the Indus valley civilization. Long after, in Persia, the Achaemenids revived cuneiform writing in an altered form; their chief monument is the Behistun Inscriptions (c.500 B.C.) of Darius I.

In Egypt the hieroglyphic epigraphy had a parallel development. From the I dynasty (4th millennium B.C.), inscriptions of the Nile present a grand panorama of history, past the age of the pyramid to the XII dynasty, heyday of hieroglyphic writing, then to the New Empire, with the splendid rock inscriptions at Thebes. Egyptian epigraphy lost its vitality more from the development of papyrus than from the downfall of the kingdom. Its influences are found everywhere in the Arabian peninsula in inscriptions of the 1st millennium B.C.; examples are the Moabite stone, Phoenician stones and coins, inscriptions near Damascus, and the Himyaritic writing of Yemen (see Sheba).

In the Mediterranean, the earliest epigraphy of Greek culture appears in Aegean civilization and Minoan civilization. In Cyprus there are inscriptions of many ages, cuneiform and Greek writing side by side. From the expansion of Greece through the course of Roman history, epigraphy flourished everywhere, and inscriptions are literally innumerable. Among the older Greek inscriptions are those on vases, coins, votive offerings, statues, and the like. In addition, there are accounts of expenditures in temples, annals (e.g., the Parian Chronicle on Páros), codes of laws (at Gortyna), decrees, bookkeeping accounts, lists of citizens, ostraca (see ostracism), and many graffiti (wall scribblings; see graffito).

Greek influence was, of course, decisive in Italy, first in the inscriptions of the Etruscan civilization. There are also many inscriptions in Italic languages, notably the Iguvine Tables. Latin epigraphy began with religious documents, but by the end of the republic it was touching every phase of life. Contemporary with the late republic there was a Celtic epigraphy in Gaul, at first in Greek letters. However, the chief Celtic inscriptions are in the ogham writings of the Christian era. The Germanic runes are another European alphabet used in inscriptions.

Later Epigraphy

Latin epigraphy extended in time far beyond the Roman Empire. The stoneworkers of Christianity adapted the old forms, first in the catacombs, then in churches. Modern monumental inscription is in the same tradition, but materially renovated by the neoclassicism of the Italian Renaissance.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Epigraphy

 

a subsidiary historical discipline that studies inscriptions, mainly from the ancient and medieval periods, on hard materials, such as stone, metal, or clay. Epigraphy emerged as a discipline during the Renaissance; the scientific methodology of epigraphy was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. (The techniques involved in deciphering, reconstructing, and dating inscriptions are discussed in PALEOGRAPHY.) The decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform writing, and Mycenaean writing greatly expanded the field of epigraphy in the 19th and 20th centuries (seeLINEAR WRITING). Epigraphic texts are an important source for political, social, and economic history, since inscriptions are generally contemporaneous with the information contained in them.

The oldest Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions date from the turn of the fourth millennium B.C., and certain ideograms are of an even earlier period. The inscriptions are recorded on the walls of religious structures, such as the pyramids, and on steles and other artifacts. Among later hieroglyphic inscriptions are bilingual texts, such as the Rosetta Stone, the study of which led to the decipherment of the hieroglyphs.

The cuneiform texts of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Asia Minor, which date from the late fourth millennium B.C., are distinguished according to language as Sumerian, Accadian, Hittite, Hurrian, Elamite, and Urartean. Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions on a variety of surfaces, including cliffs and palace walls, date from the sixth to fourth centuries B.C.; of particular importance are the inscriptions of Darius I and Xerxes. The epigraphy of the ancient East is of special importance to historical science because of the paucity of other written sources (seeHAMMURABI, CODE OF). Ideograms on seals of the Harappan civilization (third millennium B.C.) and political, economic, and religious texts from the time of the emperor Asoka are major sources for the history of Hindustan. Ancient Chinese inscriptions on bone, bamboo, and bronze date from the 14th century B.C.

In the late second millennium B.C. there appeared Phoenician epigraphic texts of a religious, sometimes historical, content in various locations, such as Byblos, Sidon, and the Phoenician colonies in Spain; the Carthaginian epigraphic texts are known as Punic texts. Phoenician epigraphy also includes, beginning in the ninth century B.C., Aramaic and Hebrew texts.

The ancient Greek inscriptions of the 11th century B.C., which were set down in syllabic writing, come mainly from Cyprus. Inscriptions of a later period (beginning in the seventh century B.C.) from the Greek mainland, southern Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean are numerous and quite diverse in content; they include legal codes, decrees, international treaties, and lists of officials, as well as historical texts (seeLAW CODE OF GORTYNA).

Latin inscriptions, the oldest of which date from the seventh century B.C, have been discovered throughout the territory of the Roman Empire and beyond its borders, on the Northern Black Sea Coast, in the Caucasus, and in Southwest Asia. They include a wide variety of texts, such as agrarian laws (Lex Agraria), the municipal law of Julius Caesar (Lex Julia Municipalis), an account of the achievements of Augustus (Monumentum Ancyranum), decrees, and edicts. Of particular importance is the study of inscriptions on classical pottery (stamps on vessels), which are a valuable source on economy and trade. The inscriptions of public organizations provide important information on the social structure of classical society.

Greco-Latin epigraphy also includes the study of the undeciphered inscriptions of the Etruscans and other Italic tribes, in whose languages it has been possible, by using epigraphic techniques, to explicate a number of political, religious, and social terms that add to our knowledge of Etruria, specifically its tribal structure and pantheon.

Medieval and later inscriptions in Greek and Latin that have been found in the Balkans and Western Europe fall within the province of Christian epigraphy, which deals primarily with inscriptions on gravestones and on churches and other buildings. The ancient Germanic peoples left behind runic inscriptions (seeRUNES). Inscriptions written in North Arabic script by various peoples have been found from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific; the oldest of these date from the sixth century.

Armenian and Georgian inscriptions containing information on political and cultural history are of great importance for the history of the peoples of the Caucasus. Turkic runic inscriptions of the sixth century have been uncovered from Mongolia to Hungary. The Orkhon-Enisei inscriptions were discovered on steles in Southern Siberia.

The earliest Slavic inscriptions, which date from the tenth century and are written in Cyrillic, were discovered in Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Bohemia. The oldest Russian inscription, also dating from the tenth century, was found on a korchaga (rounded vessel) in one of the Gnezdovo barrows (seeGNEZDOVO INSCRIPTION). Old Russian epigraphy from the 11th century is represented by inscriptions on stones, cathedral walls (including the walls of the Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev), and religious articles.

Epigraphic texts of the peoples of Southeast Asia and Central America date from the end of the first millennium B.C. to the second millennium of the Common Era.

The principal periodicals devoted to epigraphy are Numizmati-ka i epigrafika (since 1960), Epigrafika Vostoka (since 1947), Supplementum epigraphicum graecum (Leiden, since 1923), Année épigraphique (Paris, since 1888), and Epigraphia Indica (Calcutta-Delhi, since 1888).

REFERENCES

Novosadskii, N.I. Grecheskaia epigrafika, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1915.
Malov, S. E. Pamiatniki drevnetiurkskoi pis’mennosti. Moscow-Leningrad, 1951.
Melikishvili, G. A. Urartskie klinoobraznye nadpisi. Leningrad, 1960.
Rybakov, B. A. Russkie datirovannye nadpisi XI-XIV vv. Moscow, 1964.
Fedorova E. V. Latinskaia epigrafika. Moscow, 1969.
Tainy drevnikh pis’men. Moscow, 1976.
Corpus inscriptionum semiticarum, parts 1–2 and 4–5. Paris, 1881–1952.
Labat, R. Manuel d’épigraphie akkadienne, 4th ed. Paris, 1963.
Dessau, H., ed. Inscriptiones latinae seleclae, 2nd ed., vols. 1–3. Berolini, 1954–55.
Pallottino, M. Testimonia linguae etruscae, 2nd ed. Florence, 1968.

L. A. EL’NITSKII

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.