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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.
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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).
REFERENCESNovosadskii, 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