The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Inscriptions

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Edition of 1920. See also Epigraphy on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer. There are dashes which seem to stand for glyphs of some sort.

INSCRIPTIONS. The term inscriptions comprises, in its widest sense, all words or word-signs engraved (or painted) on relatively durable materials such as natural cliffs, wrought stone, baked clay, metal or even wood. For reasons of practical convenience, however, certain sorts of inscriptions are grouped apart; for example, legends on coins and the lettering on painted vases. The etymological sense of inscription (Latin inscriptio, “in-scratching”) is not to be taken so strictly as to exclude raised lettering. The rôle of inscriptions in modern times accords in general with the ancient use, but is much less extended. Then, copies of official and religious documents were frequently promulgated in the form of inscriptions, a usage that no longer survives, though commemorative and titular inscriptions are still plentifully employed. In general, inscriptions serve one of two purposes: (1) they constitute a record, and the material containing them is wrought for the express purpose of receiving the inscription (example, known from literature only, Moses' stones tables that held the decalogue); (2) the object on which the inscription is engraved fulfils a purpose of its own, while the lettering indicates the name, nature, purpose, maker or owner of the material object (commemorative column, mirror, ring, etc.). To these may be added another class, (3) the incidental inscription, a notice or entry upon an object not prepared to receive it.

Inscriptions furnish materials of value to students in many fields. To the historian — and we must understand history to be the life-record of the nation and its citizens — they supply evidence of great value, all the more valuable because nearly always contemporaneous with the facts recorded. The incidental as well as the formal record may bear testimony. An example of this sort has been found on the leg of a colossal statue at Abusimbel in Nubia, whereon Greek mercenaries who had ascended the Nile under the leadership of Psammetichus - more probably the second (594-589 B.C.) than the first (654-617) of that name — traced a brief notice of their expedition. The incidental inscription is particularly apt to furnish details valuable for social history. To the archæologist inscriptions of the second class furnish testimony of value for topography (witness the fragments of the marble Forma Urbis, an ancient inscribed plan of the chief buildings of Rome) and for the precise identification of statues and other works of art. The discovery of inscriptions is among the express tasks of the excavating archæologist, who thus supplies the raw material, so to speak, for the historian or philologian. To the philologian inscriptions yield the key to the history of writing and, if his interests lie in the comparative and historical study of words, give him a fuller knowledge of their form. To the philologian of literary interests, inscriptions yield a knowledge of historical fact or of vocabulary that may lead to a correct interpretation of a difficult literary passage. For example, the Greek historian, Thucydides, records (6.54) an altar inscription set up by Peisistratus (527-510 B.C.), which, he says, was still “in clear evidence,” but “in dim letters.” The identical inscription was found in 1877, with lettering perfectly distinct, and the literary interpretation of “dim” had to be revised and brought into accord with the facts. Meantime, the archæologists had learned that red or blue paint was employed to bring out more clearly the lettering of Greek inscriptions, and it was easy to infer that not the incision but the coloring of this inscription was dim in the time of Thucydides. Inscriptions previously known from literary works have for the philologian the added value of yielding testimony concerning the reliability of the manuscript tradition. Thus the best manuscript of Thucydides is of the 10th century A.D. and, as the last in a long chain of copies, must have been exposed to a great deal of corruption in transmission. The fact that a treaty recorded by the historian (5.47) corresponds almost exactly with the (fragmentary) inscription recording the alliance is reassuring for the MS. tradition. The littérateur, even, may be concerned with material furnished by inscriptions. One of the most considerable fragments of the poet Simonides, for example, has reached us in a copy on stone of an epitaph (epigram) in honor of the Megarians who fell in the Persian War. Some literatures have survived only as inscriptions.

It is safe to declare that inscriptions are as widely diffused as the art of writing. Even a primitive picture, if painted to convey a message, would constitute an inscription. Hieroglyphics (conventionalized picture writing) constitute the most primitive type of writing, and inscriptions of this sort, in the Maya language, are found in Yucatan. Though probably not earlier than the discovery of America, these represent, as regards writing, the same stage of culture as the hieroglyphics of Egypt (4700 B.C.). Chinese inscriptions — the Chinese being a highly conventionalized hieroglyphic script — of 1200 B.C. are also extant. The Mayan (and Aztec) system is still very imperfectly understood. Egyptian hieroglyphics were likewise long undeciphered, but in 1822 the Rosetta Stone (q.v.), a trilingual in Greek, demotic Egyptian, and hieroglyphics whereon the names Ptolemy and Cleopatra were of frequent occurrence, furnished a clue to the hieroglyphics which had been conventionalized, through a syllabary, to a pure phonetic system. — — This means, to invent an instance, that a picture (symbol) representing motion [— (to) go] comes to be used for the syllable go in a proper name like Goshen (this step was takes by Aztec hieroglyphics), or in a word like gopher: and that in the last stage the syllable sign go reduces to the letter g. — — The decipherment and interpretation of Egyptian inscription belongs to the science called Egyptology. See Egypt.

The cuneiform script, invented by the Accadians of Chaldæa, found its way to the Semites of Babylonia and Assyria. This was a syllabary, developed from an earlier pictorial system, and such it remained in those countries, where not only small objects like seals and cylinders, but whole libraries of clay tablets (reaching back into the 4th millennium B.C.), have been found. These tablets contain genuine literary works as well as the documents and announcements commonly included under the term inscriptions. The University of Pennsylvania is in possession of some 35,000 cuneiform documents, a collection particularly rich in fourth and second millennium records, and outnumbered only by the British Museum and the Louvre collections. The Tell-el-Amarna Letters are historically among the most noteworthy cuneiform inscriptions. Found by an Egyptian peasant woman in 1887, the collection is now split up between the Berlin and British museums, though a part remains in Egypt. These tablets contain a correspondence between three kings of Egypt (15th century B.C.) and the rulers of Babylonia, Assyria, Armenia, the states of Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. Of transcendent importance for the early political history of western Asia, this correspondence is also accounted to confirm the validity of the Hebrew Scriptures as an historical record. It is noteworthy for the history of culture that the petty chief of every town could command the services of a scribe able to write a letter in Assyrian — the common correspondence language, it would seem, of all those countries. The science of Semitic Cuneiform belongs to Assyriology (q.v.).

Fortunately the Assyrian syllabary, after being borrowed by the Medic Aryans, was converted into an alphabetic system. King Darius (521 B.C.) caused an Old Persian (Protomedic) inscription of 413 lines, averaging 6 feet each, with versions in Neo-babylonian and Neo-elamitic, to be inscribed on the Great Rock of Behistun, at a height of 400-500 feet. The same script had been observed on another short inscription found at Persepolis, which evidently contained proper names chiefly. As early as 1802 Grotefend allocated the names Darius, Xerxes and Hystaspes to certain script groups in these brief formulæ, and correctly isolated nine of the 13 symbols concerned. In course of time the entire Protomedic cuneiform alphabet was identified and subsequently the more complex Semitic syllabaries were worked out, resulting in the decipherment of the older cuneiform. In the Behistun inscription Darius, following precedents of Assyrian kings, summed up the history of his accession and reign. Copied in 1844 by Mr. H. C. Rawlinson, it has been carefully inspected again (1903) by the American scholar, Mr. A. V. W. Jackson.

Farther west, the Phœnicians, also Semitic, developed, perhaps from Egyptian hieroglyphics, a true alphabet, out of which sprang, on the one hand, the scripts used by the Hebrews, Arabs, Persians and Hindus, and on the other the Greek (and Roman) type. The most notable early inscription in alphabetic Semitic is the Moabite Stone (q.v.) (9th century B.C.), which recounts the victory of Mesha, king of Moab, over Israel. The language used differs but slightly from that of the Hebrew Scriptures, of the historical validity of which the Moabite Stone, like the Tell-el-Amarna Letters, is held to be in general confirmatory. [For facsimile, transcript and translation consult Hastings' ‘Dictionary of the Bible’ (III, p. 405 seq.)]. Phœnician-Greek bilinguals from Cyprus, belonging to the 4th century B.C., are extant; also Phœnician-Cypriote, which furnished the key to the Cypriote syllabary. Punic inscriptions proper are chiefly of the dedicatory sort, and relatively late, all after the Greek period. Aramaic dockets on Assyrian contract tablets (8th century B.C.) form another instance of early alphabetic Semitic

India also has its inscriptions. The oldest (250 B.C.) and most interesting are the religious edicts of King Piyadassi, known as the Asoka Edicts, which are engraved on rocks and pillars. They inculcate the religion and morals adopted by this king after his conversion to Buddhism. These inscriptions, in two unknown alphabets (Karosthi and Brahmi), were deciphered chiefly by James Prinsep, who, in the winter of 1837-38, single-handed, unraveled the Brahmi script. He guessed that in certain brief Brahmi inscriptions, plainly of a votive character, a frequently recurring final group of letters must stand for the notion “gift” and be equivalent, if the language was Sanskritic, to dānam. He further surmised that the consonant preceding dānam must be the genitive (possessive) sign — s. He thus isolated the three consonants s, d, n, and, with this start, soon identified the entire alphabet.

Greek and Roman inscriptions have been more studied and are accordingly more systematized for study than any others. The ancient Greeks were themselves conscious of the importance of inscriptions. Herodotus used them as sources, and Thucydides and Xenophon quoted them. Decrees are sparingly mentioned by Isocrates, but freely quoted by Demosthenes, who probably made use of the papyrus originals from the department of archives, not all decrees being promulgated on stone. Euripides alludes to the custom of inscribing formal compacts on tripods and dedicating them in temples. Greek antiquaries and scholars even made collections of inscriptions and Polemon (300 B.C.), who was neither the first nor the last of these collectors, owing to his zeal as an inscription hunter, got the nickname of stèlokopas, “tablet-picker.” Roman writers also — Cicero, Livy, Pliny the Elder, Suetonius — occasionally mentioned inscriptions of historical interest. Varro, the antiquary, and the lexicographer, Verrius Flaccus, commented on the diction of inscriptions; while Polybius, the Greek historian of Rome, actually cited inscriptions, making a fuller use of them than Livy. But no interest in collecting inscriptions comparable to the Greek interest, ever developed among the Romans. From the Revival of Learning on, scholars were not lacking to show an interest in classical inscriptions, but the modern impulse may be said to have had its point of departure in the first quarter of the 19th century when the Prussian Academy, under the promptings of August Boeckh, inaugurated the great collection known as the ‘Corpus Inscriptionum Græcarum’ (4 vols., 1825-56), which contained nearly 10,000 numbers. But fresh inscriptions are ever coming to light — dies diem docet — and in 1891 the number was estimated at 50,000. There has been a steady increase ever since. Excavations are now pursued in Greece and Grecian countries with a diligence and at an outlay never before known. Almost all the great nations have established archæological institutes in Athens, and all of these issue some form of learned journal devoted in part to the publication of the new inscriptions discovered; for example, ‘Papers of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens,’ American Journal of Archæology, Bulletin de Correspondence Hellenique, Ephemeris Archaiologikè, Journal of Hellenic Stndies, Mittheilungen des deutschen Archæologischen Institut, Archæologisch-Epigraphische Mittheilungen aus Oesterreich, etc. Further great collections like Boeckh's have been issued, for example, the ‘Corpus Inscriptionum Atticarum’ and the ‘Sammlung Dialekt-Inschriften’ (in progress). A similar activity has been exhibited at Rome also, with the same establishment of archæological institutes. In 1863 the first volume of the ‘Corpus Inscriptionun Latinarium,’ also supported by the Prussian Academy, was issued. Since then 15 volumes, with numerous supplements, have been published, new inscriptions being first provisionally printed in the ‘Ephemeris Epigraphica.’ In all, some 150,000 Latin inscriptions are now accessible in print.

Classical inscriptions require two classes of investigator, the field collector and the closet student. A knowledge of Greek and Latin acquired from printed books does not equip the student for field collecting. It is true that the decipherment of the known script of classical inscriptions does not present problems like those solved by the ingenuity of Grotefend and Prinsep but, for all that, training is needed for the accurate reading and copying of the inscription. Absolute accuracy in copying is difficult of attainment, but a “squeeze” made of (unsized) paper, wetted and packed into every crevice, or a copy made by covering the inscription with a sheet of dry paper and rubbing the same with powdered graphite secure excellent results. America has produced one collector of large and snccesaful experience, Mr. J. R. Sitlington Sterrett, whose collections are to be found chiefly in the ‘Papers of the American School.’ After correct copies have been secured it remains intelligently to divine words and letters lost by mutilation and to expand the abbreviations, but the latter have been so thoroughly listed in works on epigraphy (— the science of inscriptions) as now to present little difficulty. The same works have so classified the script-forms as greatly to simplify the act of reading the inscription, and their topical arrangement of the subject matter of inscriptions is a great aid to interpretation.

Greek official inscriptions were chiefly recorded on marble, Roman on bronze. The latter material, being available for so many uses, proved the less enduring. But marble slabs were also converted into building material or foundation stones of ramparts, and at Rome many an inscribed stone was calcined into lime. So many were the hazards to which inscriptions were exposed that it is exceptional to find an important one in its original location. For purposes of study the modern habit of gathering inscriptions into museums is highly convenient. In Greece, besides public squares and buildings, temples were a favorite repository for inscriptions, such as state treaties, tribute and treasure lists; dress, armor, weapons and other offerings of gratitude — all with dedicatory inscriptions — made the temple a sort of museum; images of afflicted parts of the body that had been cured, with accounts of the case inscribed thereon, were offered to gods of healing, forming a sort of nucleus of an anatomical collection and a medical library. Commonest of all forms was the sepulchral inscription which began with simple announcements but grew into sounding eulogies. Among the Greek inscriptions none has been found so comprehensively important for history as the Great Rock of Behistum, but Mr. C. T. Newton, in his essays ‘On Greek Inscriptions’ [Contemporary Review (December 1876); Nineteenth Century (June and August 1878, reprinted in ‘Essays on Art and Archæology,’ p. 95, et seq.)], has set forth with great charm their collective value for history and the things pertaining to religion. At Rome, Augustus caused a succinct account of his deeds to be engraved in bronze and set up before his mausoleum. This inscription, widely diffused in the Augustus temples throughout the empire, was discovered at Ancyra (now Angora). The Monumentum Ancyranum constitutes an extensive historical document of the very first importance. The Edict of Diocletian (303 A.D.) has quite a modern ring, being a law to control mercantile “combinations in restraint of trade” by fixing a maximum price for provisions and other commodities. The Acta Fratrum Anralium form an important memorial of a religious guild. A fragmentary black cippus unearthed in the Roman Forum (1899), supposedly near the grave of Romulus, aroused great enthusiasm. Its early date (550 B.C.) has been held to make for the credibility of the traditional account of Roman history as given by Livy rather than to give countenance to the skeptical method current since Niebuhr's time. Unfortunately, save for a few words of great interest for the comparative grammarian, the inscription admits of no more definite elucidation than the conviction that the words probably belonged to a religious prescript. The graffiti (wall-scratchings) of Pompeii form a large and interesting class of incidental inscriptions which comprises quotations, paraphrases, catchwords, proverbs; lovers' messages, complaints, tarryings, rendezvous; names and greetings. Among them the painted inscriptions (dipinti) contain election notices chiefly. The dialects of Latin are known almost entirely from inscriptions. The chief remains of the Umbrian language (dialect) are the Tabulæ Iguvinæ, seven bronze tablets found at Gubbio in 1444. They contain long ritual prescripts. Some 250 inscriptions, few of great importance save to the grammarian, represent the Oscan dialects. Etruscan inscriptions in considerable number have been found in Italy — one (supposedly) as far to the east as the island of Lemnos — but, pending the discovery of a long bilingual, these, though written in a well-known alphabet, still await definitive interpretation. The same is true of Iberian inscriptions (some 75 in number, several of between 50 and 150 letters). Runic inscriptions, in an alphabet derived from the Greek and Latin, have been found in Scandinavia and in England; the oldest (300 A.D.) being engraved on the utensils found at Thorsbjerg, others on stone monuments, rocks, weapons, ornaments and coins; the longest containing 16 words. See Runes.

Bibliography.— The general reader may consult to advantage Taylor, ‘The Alphabet’ (New York 1900); Kenyon, article “Writing” (in ‘Hastings' Dictionary’); Whitney, ‘Language and the Study of Language’ (5th ed., p. 450); the histories of Egypt by Budge (London 1902) and by Petrie (London 1897-); ‘Recent Lights on Ancient Egypt’ (Quarterly Review, 200, 1904, 48-75); essays by Boscawen (Harper's, 88, 190); Petrie (Contemporary, 69, 617); Mahaffy (Nineteenth Century, 36, 268); Price, ‘Monuments of the Old Testament’ (Chicago 1900), containing facsimiles of the Rosetta Stone and other hieroglyphics, the Moabite Stone, Behistun Rock, a Tell-el-Amarna tablet and other cuneiform documents; Rogers, ‘History of Babylonia and Assyria’ (New York 1900); Smith, ‘Chaldean Account of Genesis’ (1880); Schrader, ‘Cuneiform Inscriptions and the old Testament’ (London 1885); Sayce, essay in The Living Age (212, 1897; 360); ‘Rosetta Stone’ (Open Court, 18, 531); ‘Tell-el-Amarna Letters,’ edition with translation by Winckler (1896); essays in The Living Age, (197, 771) and The Scottish Review (17; 292); ‘Behistun Rock,’ text and translation in Rawlinson's ‘Herodotus,’ ii, 490-514); ‘Asoka Edicts’ (Rhys Davids, ‘Buddhism,’ pp. 220-228, London 1894); Smith, ‘Asoka, the Buddhist Emperor of India’ (London 1901); ‘Story of the Greek and Latin Inscriptions’ (Macmillan's Magazine, 69, 1893, 286; reprinted in The Eclectic, 122, 475); Mau-Kelsey, ‘Pompeii,’ indices and bibliography (this volume illustrates the historical value of apparently insignificant inscriptions); ‘Monumentum Ancyranum,’ essay by Call in Fortnightly Review (6, 200).

Of a more special character are the following: Brinton, ‘Primer of Mayan Hieroglyphics’ (University of Pennsylvania Publication); Budge, ‘First Steps in Egyptian’ (London 1895); Berlin, ‘Grammar of the Cuneiform Inscriptions’ (London 1888); Weissbach und Bang, ‘Altpersixhen Keilinschriften’ (Leipzig 1893); ‘Grundriss d. Iranischen Philologie’ and ‘Grundriss der indo-arischen Philologie’ (Strassburg, in progress); the Greek and Latin epigraphies in Mueller's ‘Handbuch der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft’ (Bk. 1); Roberts, ‘Greek Epigraphy’ (Cambridge 1887-); Reinach, ‘Traité d'epigraphie grecque’ (Paris 1885); Solmsen, ‘Inscriptiones Graecæ Selectæ’ (Teubner); Roehl, ‘Imagines (facsimiles) Inscriptionam Græcarum’ (Berlin 1894); Hicks and Hill, ‘Greek Historical Inscriptions’ (Oxford 1901); Egbert, ‘Latin Inscriptions’ (New York 1896); Cagnat, ‘Epigraphie Latine’ (Paris 1898); Lindsay, ‘Handbook of Latin Inscriptions.’

Edwin Whitfield Fay,
Professor of Latin, University of Texas.