This year I spent four and a half months in Greece doing some epigraphical fieldwork, as a visitor to the British School at Athens. This offered me the chance to see many museums and archaeological sites in the country. From my visits I have prepared a small guide of where to find different kinds of inscriptions typical in Greek epigraphy. Please, note that it is incomplete, since it only accounts for the museums and sites that I have visited in the last months during my research and a short vacation in Greece. Feel free to leave comments to let other readers know about wonderful pieces of epigraphy in other Greek museums.
The tomb of Clytemnestra in Mycenae. Photo from HERE.
If we want to include all epigraphy written in the Greek language, then we should start with some Mycenaean inscriptions (c.1400-1200 BC). A nice collection of Linear B tablets with administrative texts can be seen in the Mycenaean room of the National Museum in Athens. These tablets and the wonderful pieces in this room have been brought from different Mycenaean palaces. The main palace, Mycenae, is also worth visiting, along with its museum. It does not show many Linear B inscriptions, but the many objects in its exhibition rooms give the visitor an idea of the thousands of pieces retrieved in such a rich site.
Moving on to alphabetic times (8th C BC onwards), the most important of the earliest inscriptions are private dedications. One of the most famous is that of the Naxian Nikandre (SEG 60.883), which was brought from Delos to the National Museum. Remember to look at the right side of the statue to find the inscription running vertically along Nikandre’s skirt. I also had the chance to examine another dedication from a Naxian on a statue base with apotropaic creatures on each side (SEG 23.504). This one is in the museum of Delos, the only modern building in the island apart from the accommodation for the archaeologists working on the site. I especially recommend a visit to this island which is dedicated exclusively to the archaeological site and to climb to its highest point to appreciate the view of Mykonos, Paros and Naxos.
The archaeological site of Delos. Photo taken by Natalia Elvira.
Among the earliest inscriptions there are some catalogued as “nonsense”, since it has not been possible to make any sense out of them. These were especially important during my fieldwork, for I was trying to understand why would Greeks write letters without meaning on their ceramic vases. I saw a decorative nonsense inscription on a tiny aryballos on display in the Paros museum (LSAG 465.25a) and an ostrakon full of scratched letters (LSAG 358.43), possibly Carian, in the Kalymnos museum. The latter is a recently built museum which might seem small, but its collection is quite impressive for a small island. Other archaic inscriptions are on display there. It is certainly worth a visit if you happen to be around and have a chat with its extremely kind staff.
A similar kind of decorative inscriptions are abecedaria, which are probably my favourites. I have a special predilection for a Boeotian 5th cent. kylix with two abecedaria (SEG 47.522) on display in the ceramic collection of the National Museum, in the upper floor. While you walk through the ceramic collection in this and other museums, check out for artisan signatures and names of mythical characters.
Vase with the games in honour of Patroclus, signed by Sophilos. Photo from HERE.
Gravestones are also a source of inscriptions, which can sometimes be monumental in Athens. The most impressive ones are those from the Kerameikos. Some of them can be seen in the site and its museum, but most of them have been moved to the National Museum exhibition rooms and storerooms.
Also in Athens the visitor can find many public decrees. A great number of them are stored in the Epigraphical Museum in Athens. In case someone prefers a different destination, the Asclepeion in Kos has an epigraphical exhibition with several public decrees. Continuing with the politics, you may want to visit the Agora Museum in Athens, where you can see the ostracism votes retrieved from the site. In these documents, the names of many famous Athenian politicians are recognisable.
The temple of Apollo in ancient Corinth. Photo from HERE.
Going later in time to the days when Greece was a Roman province, we see that the epigraphical record does not change much from the classical and Hellenistic public decrees. These kinds of documents are still written in Greek, despite being controlled by Rome, with the addition of Greek terms for the Roman magistrates and nomenclature of the emperors. Inscriptions like this can be found, for example, in the southern slope of the Athenian Acropolis. However, some fully Latin inscriptions can be seen on Greek soil as well. The only place where I have seen those is in the archaeological site of ancient Corinth.
Byzantine inscriptions are not very numerous in Greece, but a few examples can be found in the Byzantine museum. If the reader is interested in the epigraphy of this period, I would suggest visiting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Nevertheless, orthodox writing can be found everywhere. In every small church there are icons with the names of the saints and even wall paintings or mosaics with orthodox writing as well. I especially recommend, for the epigraphist and art historian, a visit to the church of Agios Eleftherios next to the big Metropolis cathedral in the centre of Athens. This small church was built reusing stones from other monuments and so one can see reliefs and inscriptions from many different times in its outside walls. This makes it a quite original and remarkable building.
Church of Theotokos Gorgoepikoos and Agios Eleftherios in Athens. Photo from HERE.
Greece is full of these undiscovered gems and epigraphists can have a lot of fun finding all the inscriptions still out there in the open that have not been moved to museums. To mention some examples, prof. Langdon published some years ago an article about an abecedarium that he found on a rock in Vari, Attica (see HERE). In this area is also the cave full of inscriptions that Michael Loy and I explored a few months ago. But of course, as in any other city, outside of the museums you can also find modern inscriptions, some of them trying to imitate the lettering and style of the ancient ones. These are quite useful in terms of comparison and raise very important questions that might be relevant for epigraphical studies in general. What do we imitate from ancient epigraphy and why? Did people in antiquity also imitate older models? What behaviours are seen across historical ages for example in graffiti? Perhaps by looking at these modern behaviours we might understand Antiquity better.
A modern inscription in an Athenian street. Photo taken by Natalia Elvira.
~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (PhD student on the CREWS project)
2 thoughts on “An incomplete guide to epigraphy in Greece”
I LOVE trying to learn ancient Greek and the Greek alphabet!!! Coming along, okay in my progress….Really cool!
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Well done, Natalia! Here is a translation of your last monument: IN MEMORY of Panagiotis Kanellopoulos
Born at Patras in 1902, he fought for freedom and national unity. He worked earnestly and imaginatively in social science, the history of the mind and political life.
He lived at 15, Xenokratous Street from 1952 until the end of his life, 11th September 1986.
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