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  • Because such media were exclusive or predominant in many of the earliest human civilizations, epigraphy is a prime tool in recovering much of the firsthand record of antiquity. It is thus an essential adjunct of the study of ancient peoples; it secures and delivers the primary data on which historical and philological disciplines alike depend for their understanding of the recorded past.

    In a narrower sense, epigraphy is the study of such documents as remains of the written self-expression of early cultures and as communication media in their own right, attesting to the development of visible sign systems and the art of writing as such. Finally, in later periods including the present, in which perishable writing media predominate, epigraphy affords insights into the styles and purposes of monumental or otherwise exceptional techniques of written recording.

    In a wide sense, epigraphy concerns itself with the total firsthand transmission of the written remains of ancient civilizations as opposed to post-factum copying. The nature of the material e. Under this maximum definition certain subdisciplines may be included under the overall canopy of epigraphy: In the case of Egypt, papyrology tends to impinge upon wood and clay media as well, thus leaving mainly stone and metal objects as the concern of epigraphy proper.

    In general, however, unless so subdivided, epigraphy encompasses inscriptions at large, be they on primary writing surfaces or on such assorted objects as vases, potsherds, gems, seals, stamps, weights, rings, lamps, and mirrors. A further related discipline is paleographywhich concerns itself with the study of scribal hands and styles of writing and has significance for the dating of epigraphic as well as other written documents.

    The nature of the materials and techniques used for inscriptions is closely tied to the external purpose of the record itself.

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    Thus, inscriptions may be divided into monumentalarchival, and incidental. Monumental inscriptions were intended for enduring display and were therefore, as a rule, executed in lasting material, such as stone or metal.

    Maximal exposure to mortal eyes need not have been the prime purpose of their originators—e. Under this classification may be included also micromonumental inscriptions found on such objects as coins, seals, and rings, meant to endure in their own right. Courtesy of The Oriental Institute of The University of Chicago Archival inscriptions were essentially a feature of those early societies that kept records and that used such materials as have been preserved thanks to their intrinsicaccidental, or incidental durability.

    Many ancient Middle Eastern cultures employed clay tablets for writing, which they fired to insure their soundness. Minoan and Mycenaean archivists in ancient Crete and Greece used perishable temporary clay records that were preserved by unintentional baking in the conflagrations that destroyed their storerooms.

    Papyrus records from Egypt have survived as a result of climatological chance—mainly low humidity. The official purposes of public display and of archival preservation were sometimes complementary, and therefore coincidental or overlapping matter has been preserved. Broken door jamb inscribed in Hieroglyphic Luwian, c. They include, for example, wall scrawlings of the graffiti type and casual records that were kept on cheap writing matter such as potsherds ostraca and scraps of papyrus.

    Many a city dump of ancient Egypt has yielded a rich harvest for the study of daily life. Inscriptions as historical source material In studying the political, administrative, legislative, and dynastic records of extinct civilizations, modern historians must bring to bear all the evidence at their disposal; and such evidence may vary sharply from one locality and period to another. Historiography in the modern sense—the analytical ordering and interpretation of past institutions and events—is an invention of ancient Greece, and even there it only gradually eschewed the fabulous.

    In many early societies e. Asher Thus, the amount of predigested ancient information bearing on antecedent events may vary from sophisticated literary to scrupulous epigraphic or may be wholly lacking or largely valueless.

    In the latter instances the historian is almost exclusively dependent for native information on primary documents, and such documents are in most cases inscriptional. Ancient Mesopotamia Surviving epigraphic matter from the 3rd and early 2nd millennia bce includes both historical and quasi-historical material. The Sumerian king list is a compilation of names, places, and wholly fabulous dates and exploits, apparently edited to show and promote time-hallowed oneness of kingship in the face of the splintered city-states of the period.

    The Sargon Chronicle is a piece of literary legendry concentrating on spectacular figures and feats of the past, whereas contemporary royal inscriptions, notably by Sargon I of Akkad and Gudea of Lagash, are historical documents in the proper sense.

    Archives Photographiques Both kinds of texts are preserved also from the Babylonian and Assyrian periods, from the reign of Hammurabi — bce to the 6th century bce.


    Historical documents compriseabove all, the stately sequence of annals by the kings of Assyria, recorded on stone slabs, stelaefoundation markers of buildings, bronze gates, statues, and obelisks and in clay archives prisms, cylinders, tablets.

    For all their swaggering bombast and flaunting of deliberate cruelty, the annals provide prime historical source material. The detail of the Assyrian conquest of Syria, Palestine, parts of Asia Minor, Cyprus, Arabia, and Egypt would be spotty indeed without recourse to these annals, for they show the centre of political power, unlike such provincial records as those from contemporary Egypt or the Old Testament.

    Legal compilations and law codes also have pride of place in the epigraphic record of ancient Mesopotamia.


    These form a unique succession, starting in the 3rd millennium bce with that of King Ur-Nammu of the Sumerian 3rd dynasty of Ur c. The stela of Hammurabi must have been originally set up in some Babylonian population centre for the literate to read and know their rights. Some Elamite invader must have carried it off to Susa perhaps c. The bulk of the stela contains the text of the code, partly erased on the obverse but restorable in some measure from clay-tablet versions of the same laws. The top depicts the king in a worshipful pose, receiving the laws from the sun godShamash.

    In reality Hammurabi —the sixth of 11 kings of the Old Babylonian or Amorite dynasty—was a practical codifier rather than a revelatory mediator of law. The result is not a model of economy or arrangement or logical organization, but the code of Hammurabi constitutes nevertheless the first great legal monument in human history. The later Assyrian laws show traces of further removal from the cradle of Sumerian civilization since they are both harsher and noticeably more primitive.

    Diorite stela inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi, 18th century bce. The lost Aigyptiaka or Aegyptiaca of Manetho 3rd century bce contained the roster of 30 dynastieswhich still underlies the chronology of ancient Egypt. Such Classical writers as Strabo, Plutarch, and Pliny the Elder all dealt with various aspects of Egyptian antiquities.

    Figure perhaps representing Menes on a victory tablet of Egyptian King Narmer, c. Courtesy of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; photograph, Hirmer Fotoarchiv, Munich Yet the fund of knowledge would be woefully skeletal and inaccurate without the explicit testimony of contemporary records from Egypt itself. The decipherment of the Egyptian writings gave the impetus to Egyptian epigraphy. The progress of excavations multiplied the corpora of texts, especially adding the papyrological dimension.

    In addition, cuneiform Akkadian on clay tablets was the international diplomatic medium of writing during the most brilliant phases of Egyptian history and is hence an integral part of the Egyptian epigraphic record.

    The historically significant Egyptian epigraphic texts, apart from their external peculiarities, have likewise special traits relating to genres. There is little attempt at historiography and great fluctuation in bulk in the course of dynastic vicissitudes.

    They are partially annalistic and thus firsthand accounts of pharaonic or other high-level deeds; but the peculiar features of stylization, stereotypingand usurpation must frequently give the careful historian pause and sometimes debase the face value of the record. Inscribed nonroyal monuments became somewhat numerous during the 4th dynasty c.

    Palermo StoneThe first side of the Palermo Stone, which preserves the fragmentary regnal annals of the Egyptian king Snefru c. Courtesy of the Regional Museum of Archaeology, Palermo Historic records persisted under the following two dynasties, with particular articulateness in the reign of Pepi Ithird king of the 6th dynasty c. Another silence shrouded the period of the Hyksos kings c. In the 19th dynasty — bce Seti I went to war against the Syrians, Hittites, and Libyans, letting the world know about it on the walls of Karnak.

    But in this respect he was no match for his long-lived son, Ramses IIwho usurped the monuments of others and covered unprecedented amounts of wall space with his own real or inflated exploits. The Battle of Kadesh against the Hittites in bce, which ended in a stalemate, was given lavish coverage as a triumph on temple walls at Karnak, Abydos, and Abu Simbel. There is little of annalistic substance preserved from the rule of the subsequent Libyan and Cushite dynasts, and the brief Saite renaissance of the 26th dynasty — bce was already under the Assyrian and Babylonian shadow, soon to be replaced by the Persian.

    The firsthand political records declined accordingly, although they remain of significance for local history down to the Ptolemaic era, a dynasty that ruled Egypt beginning in bce, founded by Ptolemy I Sotera general under Alexander the Great. Egyptian Museum, Cairo; photograph, O. There are, however, royal administrative and legal decrees granting privileges and immunities and also records of legal proceedings, especially of the Theban tomb-robbery trials during the 20th dynasty.

    Other ancient Middle Eastern regions Regions adjacent to the power centres of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Iran were frequently mere political and administrative adjuncts, often obscure vassaldoms or adversaries without notable or attested written traditions. The Mitanni kingdom in northern Mesopotamia had some ephemeral big-power dealings with Egypt in the days of Amenhotep IIIbut its capital city is still lost in the sands, and thus its presently known epigraphic tradition is merely part of the correspondence in the Tell el-Amarna archives.

    The records of the Elamite kingdom with its capital at Susa were mostly ancillary to Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium bce and to Iran later on. The region of Syria and what later came to be called Palestine was in the 2nd millennium the object of an extended tug-of-war between Egypt and the Hittite kingdom. The cuneiform records of the Hittites contain a tradition of unique royal political self-expression.

    These documents begin with the oldest known Hittite text, the inscription of the early ruler Anittasdetailing dynastic struggles of an obscure and possibly apocryphal past.

    The subsequent founder of the Hittite Empire, Suppiluliumas I c. Hittite queens had prerogatives of independent high-level initiativeand examples of their correspondence with foreign potentates supplement the archives of their husbands. The most remarkable external political documents are numerous state treaties, sometimes between equals but more often covenants specifying protectorate or vassaldom status for subordinate states on the fringes of the kingdom. Equally notable is the Hittite Law Code, relatively enlightened and mild in the face of its contemporary counterparts in Mesopotamia.

    Altogether, the inscriptional documents are practically the exclusive source material for knowledge of the Hittites; not even the existence or location of their empire was surmised prior to the discovery of their archives. After the collapse of the Hittite Empire c. The break with the past is evident in the writing systems Hittite Hieroglyphs or West Semitic alphabet rather than cuneiform and in the languages Indo-European Anatolian, Canaanite, Aramaic.

    Into this category fall the stela of King Mesha of Moab c. Contemporary cuneiform documents from the Urartu kingdom around Lake Van in eastern Anatolia are historically and culturally an offshoot of the history of 8th-century Assyria. Ancient Iran Epigraphically recorded history in ancient Persia began dramatically with the rise of the Achaemenid dynasty in the 6th century bce. The international character of the empire is reflected in the frequently trilingual royal inscriptions—with Akkadian and Elamite versions in traditional syllabic cuneiform, and the Old Persian text in its own simplified quasi-alphabetic system of wedge-shaped writing.

    The epigraphic material included rock surfaces, building walls, columns, doorways, cornices, statues, and doorknobs; bricks, plaques, plates, and tablets of clay, stone, goldand silver; vases; weights; and seals. Almost all the longer texts were by Darius and Xerxes I ; an important one of Xerxes was found on a stone tablet at Persepolis in It is accompanied by 11 minor inscriptions, serving as keys to the sculpted scene of the panel, which shows Darius triumphant over the usurping impostor Gaumata and nine other rebels.

    The text is a self-statement of how Darius gained and consolidated his rule. It apparently had currency in the realm, apart from being tucked away on a sheer cliff wall, for a partial duplicate of the Akkadian version has been found on a dolerite basalt block from Babylon, and papyrus fragments from Elephantine have yielded scraps of an Aramaic edition.

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    Persian cuneiformPersian cuneiform from the Xerxes inscription at Persepolis. But then the Greek sources fall silent, and Indic literary tradition supplies only the usual web of timeless legendry.

    As a matter of epigraphic fact, Ashoka ruled all of northern India and a large portion of the south, from Taxila and beyond to Mysore Karnataka and Kalinga coast of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. His 14 rock edicts and seven pillar edicts in numerous versions and copies, plus separate minor texts, are scattered over this expanse—in the Prakrit language of his time and in the Brahmi script, except for some northwestern examples of the Aramaic-inspired Kharoshti writing.

    The edicts of Ashoka are thus a prime example of the value of inscriptions for historiographic dating and constitute a fixed record unparallelled in ancient Indian tradition.

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    Later periods of Indian history, such as those of the Indo-Scythian and Gupta rulers, are also represented in epigraphic documents of some historical value. Ancient China In China also, inscriptions are a means of separating chronological fact from historiographic legend.

    Nonepigraphic book composition on wood or bamboo strips had an early history in China, beginning in the later 2nd millennium bce; its scope was such that the Qin emperor Shihuangdi went down in history as a book burner in bce. The San Dai, or three periods of early Chinese history Xia, c.

    But the historicity of written records from the later Shang era c. These include, in particular, the so-called oracle bones mostly tortoise shells and scapulae of animalsbearing incised records of royal divination. At the site of the last Shang capital, Yinwere discovered inscribed vessels of bronze, bone, pottery, jade, and stone, probably ceremonial in nature and related to official ritual uses such as ancestor worship.

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