Epigraphy (from the Greek: ἐπιγραφή epi-graphē, literally "on-writing", "inscription") is the study of inscriptions or epigraphs as writing; that is, the science of identifying the graphemes and of classifying their use as to cultural context and date, elucidating their meaning and assessing what conclusions can be deduced concerning the writing and the writers. Specifically excluded from epigraphy is the historical significance of an epigraph as a document or the artistic value of a literary composition.
A person utilizing the methods of epigraphy is called an epigrapher or epigraphist. For example, the Behistun inscription is an official document of the Achaemenid Empire engraved on native rock at a location in Iran. Epigraphists are responsible for reconstructing, translating and dating the trilingual inscription and finding any relevant circumstances. It is the work of historians, however, to determine and interpret the events recorded by the inscription as document. Often epigraphy and history are competances practiced by the same person; sometimes not.
An epigraph is any sort of text from a single grapheme, such as a pot mark abbreviating the name of the merchant shipping commodities in the pot, to a lengthy document such as a treaty, or a work of literature such as a commemorative poem or a hagiographic prescription. Epigraphy overlaps other competances such as numismatics or palaeography. Most inscriptions are short compared to books. The media and the forms of the graphemes can be any whatever: engravings in stone or metal, scratches on rock, impressions in wax, embossing on cast metal, cameo or intaglio on precious stones, painting on ceramic or in fresco. Typically the material is durable, but the durability might be an accident of circumstance, such as the baking of a clay tablet in a conflagration. Modern inscriptions might be chalk graffiti on a sidewalk, sky writing, a tracing with the finger in the condensed moisture from a breath on glass, or in criminology less propitious media. Traces of such temporary epigraphs preserved by chance are often of great interest.
Epigraphy is a primary tool of archaeology when dealing with literate cultures. The US Library of Congress classifies epigraphy as one of the "Auxiliary Sciences of History". Epigraphy also helps identify a forgery: epigraphic evidence formed part of the discussion concerning the James Ossuary.
The character of the writing, the subject of epigraphy, is a matter quite separate from the nature of the text, which is studied in itself. Texts inscribed in stone are usually for public view and so they are essentially different from the written texts of each culture. Not all inscribed texts are public, however: in Mycenaean Greece the deciphered texts of "Linear B" were revealed to be largely used for economic and administrative record keeping. Informal inscribed texts are "graffiti" in its original sense.
The science of epigraphy has been developing steadily since the Middle Ages. Principles of epigraphy varied culture by culture, with Arabic historians concentrating on various ancient Near Eastern inscriptions, Chinese historians concentrating on ancient Chinese inscriptions, and European historians concentrating on Latin inscriptions at first. Individual contributions have been made by epigraphers such as Dhul-Nun al-Misri (786-859), Abu al-Hassan al-Hamadani (d. 945), Ibn Wahshiyya (10th century), Shen Kuo (1031-1095), Georg Fabricius (1516–1571), August Wilhelm Zumpt (1815–1877), Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903), Emil Hübner (1834–1901), Franz Cumont (1868–1947) and Louis Robert (1904–1985).
The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, begun by Mommsen and other scholars, has been published in Berlin since 1863, with wartime interruptions. It is the largest and most extensive collection of Latin inscriptions. New fascicles are still produced as the recovery of inscriptions continues. The Corpus is arranged geographically: all inscriptions from Rome are contained in volume 6. This volume has the greatest number of inscriptions; volume 6, part 8, fascicle 3 was just recently published (2000). Specialists depend on such on-going series of volumes in which newly-discovered inscriptions are published, often in Latin, not unlike the biologists' Zoological Record— the raw material of history.
Greek epigraphy has unfolded in the hands of a different team, with different corpora. There are two. The first is Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum of which four volumes came out, again at Berlin, 1825-1877. This marked a first attempt at a comprehensive publication of Greek inscriptions copied from all over the Greek-speaking world. Only advanced students still consult it, for better editions of the texts have superseded it. The second, modern corpus is Inscriptiones Graecae arranged geographically under categories: decrees, catalogues, honorary titles, funeral inscriptions, various., all presented in Latin, to preserve the international neutrality of the field of classics.
Other such series include the Corpus Inscriptionum Etruscarum (Etruscan inscriptions), Corpus Inscriptionum Crucesignatorum Terrae Sanctae (Crusaders' inscriptions), Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, (Celtic inscriptions), Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum (Iranian inscriptions) and so forth.