The study of Latin texts inscribed on durable objects, usually of stone or bronze. It is concerned both with the form of the inscriptions and with their content, and so impinges on many other fields, e.g. art history, palaeography, linguistics, history, law, religion.
The epigraphist must first decipher all that can be read on the inscribed object, however badly damaged, and then, where possible, propose restorations of what is illegible or lost: processes for which modern techniques, such as computer‐enhanced photographs and computerized indices of formulae, are currently supplementing long‐standing aids, such as photographs taken in raking lights and squeezes (impressions made with absorbent paper or latex). The resulting text can then be interpreted as a historical document.
The texts may be formal documents such as laws, treaties, legal contracts, wills, or records of individuals and their activities, whether inscribed in their honour, at their commission, or, quite casually, by themselves (graffiti); epitaphs form the largest single group (see epigram, latin). The earliest show the Latin language at a date well before any surviving literature, the later its development in everyday usage. They can give information on governmental policy and administration, on persons and events, and on many aspects of life and thought on which the literary sources are silent or inadequate. The cumulative evidence even of trivial examples may be enlightening; and any text may prove more informative than it appears, if it is considered in its archaeological context.
Subjects: Classical Studies.