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the visible recording of language peculiar to the human species. Writing enables the transmission of ideas over vast distances of time and space and is a prerequisite of complex civilization.
..... Click the link for more information. 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 calligraphycalligraphy
[Gr.,=beautiful writing], skilled penmanship practiced as a fine art. See also inscription; paleography. European Calligraphy
In Europe two sorts of handwriting came into being very early.
..... Click the link for more information. .
Outside Western history, epigraphy was of importance in two independent civilizations—in the remarkable art of the MayaMaya
, indigenous people of S Mexico and Central America, occupying an area comprising the Yucatán peninsula and much of the present state of Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, parts of El Salvador, and extreme western Honduras.
..... Click the link for more information. , ToltecToltec
, ancient civilization of Mexico. The name in Nahuatl means "master builders." The Toltec formed a warrior aristocracy that gained ascendancy in the Valley of Mexico c.A.D. 900 after the fall of Teotihuacán.
..... Click the link for more information. , and AztecAztec
, Indian people dominating central Mexico at the time of the Spanish conquest. Their language belonged to the Nahuatlan subfamily of Uto-Aztecan languages. They arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north toward the end of the 12th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. cultures (see pre-Columbian art and architecturepre-Columbian art and architecture,
works of art and structures created in Central and South America before the arrival of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. For many years the regions that are now Mexico and Guatemala and the Andean region of South America had been the cradle
..... Click the link for more information. ), and in China. Also notable is the exotic mid-Pacific epigraphy of Easter IslandEaster Island,
Span. Isla de Pascua, Polynesian Rapa Nui, remote island (1992 pop. 2,770), 66 sq mi (171 sq km), in the South Pacific, c.2,200 mi (3,540 km) W of Chile, to which it belongs.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 OrkhonOrkhon
, river, c.300 mi (480 km) long, rising in the Khangai Mts., N central Republic of Mongolia, and flowing east, then north, past the site of ancient Karakorum, and then northeast to join the Selenga River just S of the Russian border.
..... Click the link for more information. 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 AśokaAśoka
d. c.232 B.C., Indian emperor (c.273–c.232 B.C.) of the Maurya dynasty; grandson of Chandragupta. One of the greatest rulers of ancient India, he brought nearly all India, together with Baluchistan and Afghanistan, under one sway for the
..... Click the link for more information. (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, cuneiformcuneiform
[Lat.,=wedge-shaped], system of writing developed before the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley, probably by the Sumerians (see Sumer).
..... Click the link for more information. , 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 BabyloniaBabylonia
, ancient empire of Mesopotamia. The name is sometimes given to the whole civilization of S Mesopotamia, including the states established by the city rulers of Lagash, Akkad (or Agade), Uruk, and Ur in the 3d millennium B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. ; AssyriaAssyria
, ancient empire of W Asia. It developed around the city of Ashur, or Assur, on the upper Tigris River and south of the later capital, Nineveh. Assyria's Rise
The nucleus of a Semitic state was forming by the beginning of the 3d millennium B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. ; HittitesHittites
, ancient people of Asia Minor and Syria, who flourished from 1600 to 1200 B.C. The Hittites, a people of Indo-European connection, were supposed to have entered Cappadocia c.1800 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. ; ElamElam
, ancient country of Asia, N of the Persian Gulf and E of the Tigris, now in W Iran. A civilization seems to have been established there very early, probably in the late 4th millennium B.C. The capital was Susa, and the country is sometimes called Susiana.
..... Click the link for more information. ; for notes on examples of epigraphic treasure-troves, see UrukUruk
, ancient Sumerian city of Mesopotamia, on the Euphrates and NW of Ur (in present-day S Iraq). It is the modern Tall al Warka. Uruk, dating from the 5th millennium B.C., was the largest city in S Mesopotamia and an important religious center.
..... Click the link for more information. ; LagashLagash
, ancient city of Sumer, S Mesopotamia, now located at Telloh, SE Iraq. Lagash was flourishing by c.2400 B.C., but traces of habitation go back at least to the 4th millennium B.C. After the fall of Akkad (2180 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. ; NinevehNineveh
, ancient city, capital of the Assyrian Empire, on the Tigris River opposite the site of modern Mosul, Iraq. A shaft dug at Nineveh has yielded a pottery sequence that can be equated with the earliest cultural development in N Mesopotamia.
..... Click the link for more information. ; NippurNippur
, ancient city of Babylonia, a N Sumerian settlement on the Euphrates. It was the seat of the important cult of the god Enlil, or Bel. Excavations at Nippur have yielded the remains of several temples that date from the middle of the 3d millennium B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. ; SusaSusa
, ancient city, capital of Elam. The site is 15 mi (23 km) SW of modern Dizful, Iran. It is the biblical Shushan, and its inhabitants were called Susanchites. From the 4th millennium B.C., Elam was under the cultural influence of Mesopotamia.
..... Click the link for more information. ; Tell el AmarnaTell el Amarna
or Tel el Amarna
, ancient locality, Egypt, near the Nile and c.60 mi (100 km) N of Asyut. Ikhnaton's capital, Akhetaton, was in Tell el Amarna. About 400 tablets with inscriptions in Akkadian cuneiform were found there in 1887.
..... Click the link for more information. ; BoğazköyBoğazköy
, village, N central Turkey. Boğazköy (or Hattusas as it was called) was the chief center of the Hittite empire (1400–1200 B.C.), which was consolidated by Shubbiluliuma (fl. 1380 B.C.).
..... Click the link for more information. ).
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 civilizationIndus valley civilization,
ancient civilization that flourished from about 2500 B.C. to about 1500 B.C. in the valley of the Indus River and its tributaries, in the northwestern portion of the Indian subcontinent, i.e., present-day Pakistan.
..... Click the link for more information. . Long after, in Persia, the Achaemenids revived cuneiform writing in an altered form; their chief monument is the Behistun InscriptionsBehistun Inscription
or Bisutun Inscription
, cuneiform text, the decipherment of which was the key to all cuneiform script and opened to scholars the study of the written works of ancient Mesopotamia.
..... Click the link for more information. (c.500 B.C.) of Darius I.
, Arab. Misr, biblical Mizraim, officially Arab Republic of Egypt, republic (2005 est. pop. 77,506,000), 386,659 sq mi (1,001,449 sq km), NE Africa and SW Asia.
..... Click the link for more information. the hieroglyphichieroglyphic
[Gr.,=priestly carving], type of writing used in ancient Egypt. Similar pictographic styles of Crete, Asia Minor, and Central America and Mexico are also called hieroglyphics (see Minoan civilization; Anatolian languages; Maya; Aztec).
..... Click the link for more information. 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 pyramidpyramid.
The true pyramid exists only in Egypt, though the term has also been applied to similar structures in other countries. Egyptian pyramids are square in plan and their triangular sides, which directly face the points of the compass, slope upwards at approximately a
..... Click the link for more information. to the XII dynasty, heyday of hieroglyphic writing, then to the New Empire, with the splendid rock inscriptions at ThebesThebes
, city of ancient Egypt. Luxor and Karnak now occupy parts of its site. The city developed at a very early date from a number of small villages, particularly one around modern Luxor (then called Epet), but remained relatively obscure until the rise of the Theban family
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 stoneMoabite stone
, ancient slab of stone erected in 850 B.C. by King Mesha of Moab; it contains a long inscription commemorating a victory in his revolt against Israel. It was discovered at Dibon, Jordan (1868), by F. A. Klein, a German clergyman.
..... Click the link for more information. , Phoenician stones and coins, inscriptions near Damascus, and the Himyaritic writing of Yemen (see ShebaSheba,
biblical name of a region, called in Arabic Saba, of S Arabia, including present-day Yemen and the Hadhramaut. Its inhabitants were called Sabaeans or Sabeans. According to some passages in Genesis and First Chronicles, Sheba, a grandson of Noah's grandson Joktan, was the
..... Click the link for more information. ).
In the Mediterranean, the earliest epigraphy of Greek culture appears in Aegean civilizationAegean civilization
, term for the Bronze Age cultures of pre-Hellenic Greece. The complexity of those early civilizations was not suspected before the excavations of archaeologists in the late 19th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. and Minoan civilizationMinoan civilization
, ancient Cretan culture representing a stage in the development of the Aegean civilization. It was named for the legendary King Minos of Crete by Sir Arthur Evans, the English archaeologist who conducted excavations there in the early 20th cent.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 PárosPáros
, island (1991 pop. 9,591), c.81 sq mi (210 sq km), SE Greece, in the Aegean Sea; one of the Cyclades. The main town is Páros. The land slopes to the coast from Mt. Hagios Ilias (c.2,500 ft/760 m high).
..... Click the link for more information. ), codes of laws (at GortynaGortyna
, ancient city, S central Crete. Under Rome it was one of the leading cities of the island. Many ancient Greek remains have been discovered on the site. An inscription dating from c.450 B.C.
..... Click the link for more information. ), decrees, bookkeeping accounts, lists of citizens, ostraca (see ostracismostracism
, ancient Athenian method of banishing a public figure. It was introduced after the fall of the family of Pisistratus. Each year the assembly took a preliminary vote to decide whether a vote of ostracism should be held.
..... Click the link for more information. ), and many graffiti (wall scribblings; see graffitograffito
. 1 Method of ornamenting architectural plaster surfaces. The designs are produced by scratching a topcoat of plaster to reveal an undercoat of contrasting and deeper color.
..... Click the link for more information. ).
Greek influence was, of course, decisive in Italy, first in the inscriptions of the Etruscan civilizationEtruscan civilization,
highest civilization in Italy before the rise of Rome. The core of the territory of the Etruscans, known as Etruria to the Latins, was northwest of the Tiber River, now in modern Tuscany and part of Umbria.
..... Click the link for more information. . There are also many inscriptions in Italic languages, notably the Iguvine TablesIguvine Tables
, several inscribed bronze tablets dating from the 1st and 2d cent. A.D., discovered in 1444 at Gubbio, Italy (the ancient Iguvium and later Eugubium). Most of them are still preserved there.
..... Click the link for more information. . 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 oghamogham,
, ancient Celtic alphabet of one of the Irish runic languages. It was used by the druids and abandoned after the first few centuries of the Christian era.
..... Click the link for more information. writings of the Christian era. The Germanic runesrunes,
ancient characters used in Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon, and Scandinavian inscriptions. They were probably first used by the East Goths (c.300), who are thought to have derived them from Helleno-Italic writing.
..... Click the link for more information. are another European alphabet used in inscriptions.
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.