Epigraphy - Teach and Text

Optional Course MA/MPhil Ancient History
Leiden University
2nd semester
Instructor: Dr F.G. Naerebout
[email protected]
1 Schedule
February 3 – May 12, Mondays 9:00-11:00, Room: Huizinga 007
please note: no classes on March 24, April 21 and May 5
2 Assessment
by way of individual assignments – which include the writing of
weekly reports (50%) and a short essay on some epigraphic
issue (50%)
3 Website
A dedicated web address: www.epigraphy.eu
(or www.ancient-history-online.info /
www.oudegeschiedenis.info and choose ‘Syllabi’ from menu)
4 Literature
Recommended: François Bérard et al., Guide de l’épigraphiste.
Bibliographie choisie des épigraphies antiques et médiévales,
Paris 2010 Editions Rue d’Ulm [4th ed] ISBN 978-2-72880443-6
What is epigraphy?
Epigraphy =
study of inscriptions (in the most literal sense) =
intaglio lettering in a hard nonorganic surface
[intagliare = incidere = epigrafein]
Intaglio inscriptions are still
a fairly common phenomenon
• Whether a text falls within the realm of epigraphy is
decided on the basis of its exterior characteristics: the
carrier and the particular writing process involved.
Epigraphy is NOT concerned with a particular KIND of
texts, as far as their contents is concerned (even if in
practice some textual genres make up most of our
inscriptional evidence).
• So: any intaglio writing on stone, metal and ceramics is the
realm of epigraphy. Texts can be carved, engraved, but
also cast, struck, stamped…. The writing can be on
movable objects, on immovable property, or on living
• Opposed to epigraphy is the study of texts written (or
printed) in ink, paint or pencil on some organic surface:
bark, plywood, silk or other textiles, bamboo, leaves,
papyrus, paper, vellum. This is the realm of codicology,
papyrology and other (often unnamed) specialisations.
Inscription from the votive image of
You Tian Wang (= Udayana, king of
Udayagiri, ca 500 B.C.) at the
Longmen Caves in Luoyang,
dedicated by “Great Aunt Li” in
memory of her husband, in 659 A.D.
Rubbing with ink on paper made
1923/1925 and now in the Harvard
Fine Arts Library
The earliest dated pre-Islamic Arabic inscription, 267 A.D.
not inscriptions
birch bark (medieval Novgorod)
Papyrus (Egypt)
Wood (Roman
not inscriptions either:
Bamboo (China)
Silk (China)
Note: ‘any intaglio writing’: yes/no
Some texts which very obviously are inscriptions, such as
texts scratched in lead, are sometimes excluded from
epigraphy. Because of the cursive writing, they go with
Defixio (curse) from
Roman Britain
dubious cases:
not inscriptions, or inscriptions after all?
1 texts on non-organic surfaces, but not intaglio:
1.1 cut from stone, in relief  considered inscriptions [rare in the ancient world]
1.2 stamped in ceramic, in relief  considered inscriptions [common in the ancient world]
1.3 cut, cast, struck in/from metal, in relief  considered inscriptions, but NOT the most
common example, coins with coin legends: these are left to numismatists
1.4 written with ink (dipinti) on pottery sherds (ostraka) [cf. slate, chalkboard]  tend to
go to papyrology, or to fall between the cracks
1.5 Texts painted on walls (graffiti)  usually considered inscriptions
1.6 Texts painted with enamel or otherwise on pottery or glass  left to archaeologists, art
historians [texts on glass are rare or absent in the ancient world]
2 texts on organic surfaces, but intaglio
2.1 texts carved in wood  either papyrology or epigraphy
2.2 texts carved in bone  considered inscriptions
3 other
3.1 intaglio texts that are filled in  considered inscriptions
3.2 texts laid out in mosaic  considered inscriptions
3.3 texts composed of separate letters (usually metal)  considered inscriptions
3.4 texts woven in textiles  left to archaeologists, art historians [rare or absent in the
archaeological record]
Painting on wall (Pompeii)
Relief lettering on struck coin
Text incised in bone (China)
Ink writing on ostrakon (El Amarna, Egypt)
Text laid out in mosaic (Roman
Text carved (accidentally) in wood
(a wax tablet)
The main bulk of the texts studied by epigraphy are
intaglio texts in stone, metal or ceramics.
A few such intaglio texts are excluded, and some other
categories of texts are included  the categorization of
materials, c.q. the division of labour in their study is
not systematic.
!! For a full view of the textual production of an area
or a period, you have to be aware of such ‘fuzzy
Why study epigraphy?
Louis Robert 1904-1985
1939-1974 Professeur d’épigraphie et
antiquités grecques au Collège de
• Barthold Georg Niebuhr wrote in 1815 (!)
“dass Inschriften für die alte Geschichte
den Urkunden für die neuere
entsprechen”: “that in ancient history
inscriptions fulfill the role that in the
historiography of more recent periods is
fulfilled by archival documents.” They do
that – and more.
Why is it a separate discipline?
There are many different epigraphies:
Indian (Sanskrit etc)
Chinese (xin bian = carved in stone)
Celtic (‘inscribed stones’, Ogham)
Central-American (Maya)
Scandinavian ( runology)
Semitic & Hamitic (Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, Punic etc) And so on.
But not all epigraphies are separate disciplines:
e.g., the study of cuneiform texts and of hieroglyphs is fully integrated
into Assyriology and Egyptology.
An epigraphy is a separate discipline when it is
institutionalized as a separate discipline
Greek and Latin epigraphies
have departments, conferences,
journals, publications: so they
are disciplines in their own right
Roots go back to 16th century
Martinus Smetius 1565
Smetius, ed Justus Lipsius
Leiden 1588
Janus Gruterus, Heidelberg 1603
But also a substantive reason:
highly specific technical skills
What do epigraphers do?
• Find inscriptions [hunting for inscriptions  chance
• Collect inscriptions [unpublished or from whatever
• Document inscriptions [photographs, squeezes, rubbings,
drawings, exact description of object and of (original)
location, measurements, bibliography]
• Read inscriptions [palaeography, language, expand
abbreviations & symbols, make conjectures]
• Categorize inscriptions [conventional categorizations,
e.g. dedications, epitaphs, building inscriptions, military
diploma’s, defixiones…]
• Date inscriptions [from
exterior characteristics
or from dating in the
• Edit and (re-)publish
• Translate inscriptions
• (Re-)interpret inscriptions
• Contextualize inscriptions
[‘mettre en série’]
• Write the history of
inscribing texts
• Write history on the basis
of inscribed texts
The purpose of this course
is not to teach you to be an epigrapher,
but to teach you how to work with epigraphic material.
That implies
 a proper knowledge of the ‘apparatus’ of epigraphy: its
bibliography and its digital presence.
 a certain experience in handling published epigraphic sources.
 knowing something about the ‘inner workings’ of epigraphy as
a discipline – you need that knowledge in order to assess the
value of epigraphic sources.
With a few exceptions, we will limit ourselves to
inscriptions in Greek and Latin, originating from the
ancient Greek and Roman world, and written in an
alphabetic script.
(But do keep in mind that Greeks and Romans lived in a
multi-lingual world!)
So we can range from the oldest alphabetic Greek texts
now known (8th century B.C.), to our (relatively arbitrary)
cut-off date in
the 7th century
The Dipylon-vase: one of the
oldest alphabetic Greek
inscriptions on record

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