An overview.
J.C. Tucker


This paper is a comprehensive overview on the work of epigraphers, or people who study epigraphs. Epigraphs are small inscriptions carved on coins, tablets, or in some instances written on paper, and bear some sort of significance to cultures both past and present. Epigraphers’ jobs are often broken down into multiple parts (generally classification, translation, and determining cultural significance of epigraphs), and those parts are further broken down. These epigraphers generally work on teams with archaeologists, anthropologists, and other epigraphers to study individual or multiple cultures. These cultural findings then go on to help paint a better picture of world history.

A man is sitting at a desk when a package arrives. He opens the package to find a small tablet covered in a long dead language’s scripture. Included in the package is a letter asking for a complete epigraphical study on the tablet. The man grabs the tablet and moves over to a work table in his office. On this table is a magnifying glass, a series of notepads and pens, multiple adjustable lamps, and a small set of archaeological cleaning tools. He sets the tablet down on the table and positions two of the lamps to cast a shadowless light on the tablet. He dusts it off with a small brush and begins transcribing the contents of the tablet onto one of his notepads.

This man is an example of an epigrapher. The job of the epigrapher is generally broken down into three parts: classification, translation, and determining significance of the epigraph. These three parts are often broken down into multiple subcategories.

The first, and final, goal of an epigrapher, but one that starts the moment the epigraph is received, thus the reason it is listed as also the first goal of the epigrapher, is to classify the object based on its inscription. “Epigraphs are classified as either monumental … archival … and incidental” states the Britannica micropedia (vol. 4, p. 524). This means that the task of classifying an epigraph is broken down into determining if the epigraph is monumental (or to be preserved), archival (or to be archived), or incidental (or things like graffiti). Thus the epigrapher has the task of studying each epigraph in detail, and looking at it from each point of view.

To understand the reasoning behind classification one must first understand a little about the evolution of written languages. “ Though writing developed not much more than 5000 years ago … its roots … lie further back in the past.” claims Robert Claiborne in his book The Birth of Writing (1974, p. 10). This quote opens a paragraph showing how man slowly realized how important keeping records were and how pictorial representation could be used to keep these records.

This slowly led to man using written representation for sounds of spoken language. This revolution in the evolution of the writing process, and thus written language, lead to writing having a lot of importance in the various societies of the time. Robert Claiborne goes on to explain that

By 2000 BC the craft of writing was more than 1000 years old. It had spread … and was in use all over the Middle East in many variations. … Over the ensuing millennium came the last and most vital step in its evolution: the advent of the alphabet.(1974, p. 115).

This creation of the alphabet led to quite a few new things: poetry, literature, and religious and legal documentation. Some of these works would later carry a greater importance than the importance they had to the people who created them. These works would become epigraphs, and used to help understand certain cultures.

Other works of those kinds are sometimes of great importance and are considered monumental epigraphs, or intended for preservation. One great example of both an archival and monumental epigraph is the Rosetta stone. It is often the case that these epigraphs are the most important finds, and lead to finds that redefine some cultures. The 2002 World Book Encyclopedia has this to say about the Rosetta stone: “[The Rosetta stone] gave the world a key to the long-forgotten language of Ancient Egypt. … The language of Ancient Egypt had been a riddle to scholars for hundreds of years.” (Vol. 16, p. 482).

Some important epigraphs are not professionally made, such as graffiti, and are considered incidental epigraphs. One big reason for the importance of incidental epigraphs is that they can be analyzed to determine the thoughts and feelings of the general body group of society. One such example is the Ixthys fish that are so popular in today’s age. However, these were originally carved on buildings or marked on people to show that they are Christians and it is safe to worship at that building or with those people. David Richards, a theater instructor and Pastor/Youth minister, explains:

They were extremely important. The IXTHUS allowed these new Christians a safe place to meet. Christianity is a life long commitment to better relationships with God and each other. Christians depend on community with each other. In China, today, Christians will meet in safe houses and sing silent hymns. It is essential to be together, to help each other in struggle, the IXTHUS facilitated that. (Personal Communication, January 9th, 2008)

These fish, when found carved on buildings, are considered incidental epigraphs. They were not professionally made, nor were they sanctioned by society. But they definitely bear importance to the study of these cultures.

This classification and the initial study of the epigraph create the first step in the epigraphic study. The three classes of epigraph (monumental, archival, and incidental) are specifically designed to encompass all epigraphs. This initial classification is also used to determine importance for the next step of the epigraphic study: Translation.

The translation of epigraphs is a semi-complex task. With the Rosetta stone, for example, came many complications. One such complication was that “Coptic had become extinct in Egypt in the century and a half since Kircher had compiled his dictionary, but it survived as the liturgical language of the Coptic Christians (as it does today).” (Claiborne, 1974, p. 38). This served as a moderate problem for the language of the Coptic Christians was slightly different from the ancient Coptic, mixed with ancient Greek in the demotic script of the Rosetta stone. However, on the Rosetta stone was also, the same scriptures were written in ancient Greek.

This scripture, in these three languages, proved to be the key to deciphering the Epyptian language. The Rosetta stone is considered a key by epigraphers because it is written in multiple languages. A key is generally defined by having multiple languages depicting the same scripture where at least one of the languages is known. The Rosetta stone is probably the best example of a monumental epigraphical key, as well as being one of the most famous. However, it took quite a while to translate.

One of the first scholars to study the Rosetta stone was David Akerblad. Akerblad had noticed a traceable patter between the three languages on the stone.

Akerblad, knowing Coptic and greek, attacked the demotic script. Comparing it with the Greek text, he saw the … names of Ptolemy Epiphanes … Alexander … Alexandria … and Arisonoë … . He got so far as to pick them out in the demotic text. Examining these names more closely, equivalents [of certain letters in these names]. But Akerblad progressed no further; discouraged, he failed to follow up the clues he had unearthed. (Claiborne, 1974, p. 39).

Akerblad’s method is actually quite common. By looking for characters in proper nouns, such as people’s names, place names of big empires, and other such things, epigraphers can begin to determine the alphabet structure of the language the are studying.

However, some symbols don’t always have phonetic meaning. The Frenchman Jean Francois Champollion determined that some hieroglyphs did not fit the pattern.

Champollion found that the symbols [that did not fit] were different from alphabetic letters; used in combinations that varied from word to word and from text to text, they made hieroglyphic writing a hodgepodge of consonants, syllables, and determinatives – symbols that serve to clarify word meanings … . (Claiborne, 1974, p. 43).

Claiborne’s passage brings one of the many complications of translating epigraphs to the surface: the possibility of symbols with multiple meanings, or no meaning at all.

Often, when such symbols arise in epigraphs the translation often becomes so complex that, unless the epigrapher is also a linguist or a cryptologist, it is out of the epigrapher’s hands. In these instances a copy of the artifact is made and sent to either a linguist or a cryptographer for decoding. If this occurs then the epigraphic study is put on hold while the artifact is translated. This temporary hiatus is due to the translation being very important for the next step of the study: determining significance of the epigraph.

To determine cultural significance of an epigraph one must also have a general education in three subject areas (Sociology, Anthropology, and History).This background is useful for many reasons. Knowledge of Sociology helps the epigrapher understand how societies work. This is often necessary because in order to know the societal significance of an artifact, or work, one must understand the principles, morals, and workings of different societies around the world. Knowledge of Anthropology is necessary to understand human kind both as a body and in its different groups. This gives the epigrapher the necessary knowledge to understand what different kinds of human beings would find important. Finally, knowledge of History is a very building block of epigraphy. Without knowledge of history an epigrapher would not be able to use existing clues in the epigraph to gauge what mindset he must have in order to determine importance of the epigraph.

Some epigraphs bear importance to historians. One good example of this would be the Dead Sea Scrolls.

[The] Dead Sea Scrolls [are] ancient manuscripts discovered in desert caves and ancient ruins in the wilderness of Judea. [The Dead Sea Scrolls] are among the more important discoveries in the history of modern archaeology. Their recovery has enabled scholars to push back the date of a stabilized Hebrew bible to no later than AD 70, to reconstruct the history of Palestine from the 4th century BC to AD 135, and to cast a new light on the emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism and on the relationship between early Christianity and Jewish religious traditions. (Britannica, 1998, Vol. 13, p. 937).

Those scrolls would have been considered monumental epigraphs, with high historical significance. They would be considered historically important because they were used to help redefine multiple sections of human history.

Other works bear significance as religious scriptures. One such example would be the 4th century Coptic papyrus of the Gospel According to John. Such artifacts only qualify as bearing religious significance if they can be connected to one of the “true” religions. This is mainly so that the ravings of a mad man aren’t considered to be religiously significant. For instance, if a tablet found is carved with random phrases of how some man believes that a potato is God, it is considered an incidental epigraph, and not a religiously significant work. Religious epigraphs go under much study before they are truly considered to be religious. The alleged Gospel According to Mary is still being verified and scrutinized over to make sure that it is authentic. When it comes to declaring epigraphs as religious, scholars and epigraphers work hard to be sure the epigraph is authentic as to not offend a large population; this is especially true when it comes to verifying religious documents pertaining to Christianity.

Another kind of important epigraphs are legal. One of the best legal epigraphs in human history is the Code of Hammurabi.

[The Code of Hammurabi was] developed during the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) of the 1st dynasty of Babylon. It consists of his legal decisions that were collected towards the end of his reign. … These 282 case laws include economic provisions … family law … criminal law … and civil law. Penalties varied according to the status of the offenders and the circumstances of the offenses. … The principle (and only considerable) source of the Code of Hammurabi is the stela discovered at Susa in 1901 by the French Orientalist Jean-Vincent Scheil and now preserved in the Louvre.(Britannica, 1998, Vol. 5, p. 669).

This is an example of a legal epigraph because it shows the legal structure, punishments, and laws of a past society.

Some epigraphs are important because they are insightful. Some insightful epigraphs are simply graffiti. Ancient Rome had a lot of graffiti, both from Romans, Christians (as was explained earlier), and assorted other persons. Some famous graffiti found, too vulgar too be quoted here, was in Pompeii, and especially in the gladiatorial hall. It seems that gladiators liked insulting their opponents, and praising themselves, in carvings on the walls.

Needless to say, epigraphers are very important scholars. Over the years epigraphers have unlocked the mysteries of the world and history. They have helped religions prove the age of their documents, and helped disprove fakes. These epigraphers work for years at a time working hard to make sure that their findings are correct and accurate. It is truly a difficult process, classifying epigraphs according to one of three classes, translating epigraphs in living, and dead, languages, and finally determining their significance and how they will be used by society and scholars. It rests on these epigraphers to verify things like the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, the written Dhammapada, and all of the other religious documents, and countless other documents, that span history. Their job is far more important than they get credit for.


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