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Epigraphy: A Beginners Guide I

Ancient Greek texts are an important tool to learn more about the ancient Greeks and their history. Most people will know the information given to us via the writings of historians such as Herodotos of Halicarnassos, yet there are also the Greek texts such as decrees or funerary steles which tell us more about life in the Greek poleis. Today’s blog post tells us exactly how these texts are studied and interpreted.  

What is Epigraphy?

Examples of Greek pottery fragments with the name of the Athenian that was to be ostracized

Epigraphy is the study of texts inscribed, painted and scratched onto hard material such as stone, marble, pottery, wood, metals such as bronze or any other material that is not papyrus. Because of the different material on which these texts were written, they deal with a bunch of different topics. This means that epigraphists can be found working on civic decrees and honours, funerary steles, dedications for gods or benefactors, but also graffitos, ostraka pieces and the names of potter’s left on the pottery.  These texts were written for over a thousand years: from around 800 BC until late Antiquity. 

 

What do epigraphists do?

Primarily since the 18th century epigraphists have studied these texts, sometimes recreating them – often only fragments are found – and registered them in collections such as the IG (Inscriptiones Graecae: this collection aims to collect of the inscriptions of the Greek world) or the CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum: one of the collections with solely Latin inscriptions).  

Epigraphists study and draw conclusions from all aspects of these texts: the letters, the material used, the vocabulary and of course the content. For example, by studying the placement of the letters, epigraphists can reconstruct missing pieces from an inscription because a certain amount of letters were put on one line of text. The style of the lettering can also help with the dating of a particular text or even identify the hand that made these letters. 

Sometimes the texts are difficult to read, because they were badly preserved or damaged over time.  An important tool used to make the deciphering of the inscription easier is the squeeze, which is a paper inverse copy of the inscription. Squeezes are made by hammering a wet piece of filter paper on a stone, and leave it to dry. Squeezes are easily transported and durable. It is often preferable to have a squeeze at hand when you want to decipher an inscription and show irregularities that the stone itself any photos can often not show. To see how a squeeze is made, click here. 

Why are inscriptions important?

Inscriptions are among the most important new sources of the ancient world. Every year, new inscriptions are found and published, adding to our knowledge about regions, poleis and areas of life not mentioned by the ancient authors. Inscriptions offer extremely useful information on the social, cultural and religious conditions of the time because they tell us what ordinary Greeks wanted to preserve.  This forms a stark contrast to the male aristocratic perspective found in the literary texts. However, the often fragmentary condition and the different types of texts requires considerable background knowledge which often stops historians using epigraphical texts. 

Did you learn something new about inscriptions? Tell us in the comments! Be sure to check back soon for another post on working with epigraphical texts and editions.

 

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