Contributions of Epigraphy to archaeological research

Contributions of Epigraphy to archaeological research

The achievements of the epigraphy in the Maya Area They are practically very recent, since it is in the last forty years that part of the Mayan writing has been deciphered and sometimes the results of their readings have not coincided with archaeological research.

At specific case of the Mayan civilization, epigraphy has a wide field of work, given the amount of glyphs and sculptures that are preserved of these peoples who inhabited the territory that today corresponds to the south of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
Through epigraphy you can study all the inscriptions that can be found on monuments and other objects that were once destined to form part of a temple, a tomb, etc.

I consider that epigraphy It could provide a large amount of information for archaeological investigations, since by contrasting these two types of sources, more interesting conclusions can be reached. In addition, archaeological work requires other types of data that enrich its work, so interdisciplinary research must be carried out.

¿What is epigraphy?

Epigraphy is a science that aims at the comprehensive study of inscriptions or epigraphs made of hard substances such as wood, metal or stone. Inscriptions throughout the history of epigraphy have been considered for their content, as a support for history or philology, or for their form, as the basis for the study of writing, sometimes differing in form. Paleography is not very precise due to the type of support in which the texts appear written, or as a support for archeology, to date sites or document archaeological remains and contrast the information they offer.

It is evident that the inscriptions constitute first-order documents for the knowledge of the past civilizations, but they must be studied as a fundamental object in themselves, with their own methodology.

In the writing history, play a very important role since in practically all civilizations there are primitive inscriptions on different supports: clay tablets, bones, stone, marble or bronze, among others.

In fact, one of the characteristics that traditionally defined epigraphy, as opposed to paleographywhich in its narrowest sense would be the study of ancient scriptures and their evolution-, is, from a practical point of view at least, the consideration of the support, it being understood that epigraphy deals with texts inscribed or written on hard supports, like those mentioned, with the exception of coins, whose study is in charge numismatics, or from stealth who studies ancient seals, while paleography Its purpose is to study writing on so-called soft materials such as parchment or paper, since writing on papyrus is also the object of the study of papyrology, along with other writings with similar characters, even if they are made on another medium.

Next to these, codicology studies the book, as a support and special form, as well as its history and evolution. But the basic distinction between hard or resistant and soft materials to divide epigraphy and paleography is insufficient and inaccurate; so is the fact that the writing mainly used in the inscriptions is the capital, as opposed to the lower case, librarian or italics, in the codices and documents, or that in the former it is incised and in the latter it is drawn.

Mayan epigraphy.

The mayan writing It is one of the most complex, unfortunately, because what has been deciphered to date is only a tiny part that includes, for the most part, dates and a few glyphs. A good part of the complexity of the Mayan texts is due to the contributions of other societies, such as the Olmec or Oaxaca societies.

In the country, no researcher has devoted himself to study of these inscriptionsInstead, all the jobs have been done by foreigners. Epigraphic studies can be divided into Maya area in four schools, the German School, the Russian School, the North American School and the Mexican School.

Some proposals have been made such as Heinrich Berlin (1), which mentions a special glyph exclusive to each city that he calls the Emblem glyph. The meaning of these emblems is unknown, but he considers that it refers to something closely related to each place, be it the name of the town, a tutelary deity, a dynasty ...

In 1566, Diego de Landa, Franciscan bishop who was a terrible destroyer of Mayan culture, wrote: ``We found a large number of books full of writings that contained only superstitions and lies of the devil. We have burned them and this causes them pain and torment` (2).

However, from all this destruction there were temples with inscriptions, stelae, tombs and objects that speak of this exciting world that we all want to know and whose enigmas are gradually being solved.

Epigraphy and archeology.

The simultaneous use of epigraphic analysis With other types of data, in this case those provided by archeology, they can make the reconstruction of the history of these Mayan cities more effective.

The use of epigraphic data brings many advantages for archaeological investigations. An example of this type of work is the one carried out by Marcela Ayala Falcón with Stela 39 from Tikal (3). In this work, she tried to shape the inscription into the history of the site, not just try to interpret the signs of the stele. In addition to epigraphic and iconographic analysis, he used data from archeology and physical anthropology to make it more complementary.

There are times when the stelae cannot be dated by conventional means, so it is necessary to resort to alternatives, which in this case would be the use of the epigraphic data.

For example, the stelae can be analyzed to obtain the dates they contain, in this case the long count. Another option is to use a stylistic analysis such as the one Ayala Falcón carried out. In this case, she took up some features from the stela and compared them with others from the Leyden plate, obtaining an approximate antiquity (4).

Regarding the inscriptions, many times the information they contain is too partial since the "written" information was made by the dominant groups to satisfy their own interests, so in that case you can resort to archaeological data that can be the distribution and study of the buildings, ceramics, among other things, these associated elements contain other types of information that can help reconstruct the history of the site and its relationships with others in the same area.

It is also interesting to find in the stylistic analysis of the stelae, elements belonging to other areas, which when compared with archaeological data, provide us with evidence of certain relationships between these groups, or ethnic movements.

In the work of Ayala Falcón mentioned above, when associate epigraphic analysis with archaeological, associates tombs with stelae, and comes to the conclusion that from very early times, a specific building was related to a lineage that she calls Jaguar.

As in this example, many stelae were associated with buildings and referred to certain moments in relation to members of the elite; They could also have been adjusted to celestial events or to events adjusted to time.

The data provided by stelae or other inscriptionsThey can tell us a lot about the names of some monarchs, cities, or perhaps relationships with other cities; in addition to stylistic elements that also associate them with other areas.
Use of historical sources

I consider that sources such as epigraphy or archeologyThey need to be contrasted with other types of data, in this case, with historical data that complement the information from these sources.

At Maya area for example, this type of information is very important, either in codices (of which very few remain), but especially in books made during the Colony by friars. In this area was Fray Diego de Landa, who wrote the Relationship of the Things of Yucatan (5).

This friar was one of those who became fully involved in the evangelization process and held many positions within the Franciscan order to which he belonged.

His work provides a lot of information for the study of the Mayans, such as the record of the long count; he also mentions the interlocking katun wheels. As the Spaniards contrast their culture with that of the natives, they try to adapt their writing to their alphabet, so Fray Diego de Landa it gives a phonetic value to the representations and builds a kind of alphabet. Specifies that to complete words, they use graphic elements.

Over many years, various researchers tried to read mayan texts using the alphabet bequeathed by Landa, but none had succeeded, so it was believed that this work was useless and was false; but Yuri Knórosov begins to do exercises with this work and others, and after many analyzes, he discovered that in reality, it was a syllabary and not an alphabet as had been believed.


Investigations should not only use archaeological data, but must be interdisciplinary in nature. The epigraphy it can be a very useful tool to compare our data and obtain new information that helps us. Likewise, other types of data such as historical and ethnographic should be used.

The epigraphic information It can be analyzed together with historical or ethnographic sources, as mentioned, either codices or legends.
For this type of research, other considerations must also be taken into account, such as the spatial and temporal context. You have to take into account when and where it was registered, as well as the social, political situation, etc.


  1. BERLIN, Heinrich (1977), "Signs and meanings in Mayan inscriptions."
  2. LANDA, Diego de (1566), «Relation of the things of Yucatan».
  3. AYALA, Falcón Maricela (1985), «The stela 39 of Tikal. Lost World".
  4. AYALA, Falcón Maricela, ibid.
  5. LANDA, Diego de, ibid.

AYALA, Falcón Marcela (1985) "Stela 39 of Tikal, Lost World". Memories of the First International Colloquium of Mayistas. UNAM
BERLIN, Heinrich (1977) "Signs and meanings in Mayan inscriptions" National Institute of Cultural Heritage of Guatemala.
Hispanic Encyclopedia (2001) "Epigraphy". Editorial Barsa Planeta, Inc. P. 11-15
LANDA, Diego de (1566) "Relation of the things of Yucatán" ed. Dastin introduction by Gómez, Raquel (2003)

Images: Public domain

I am Mexican and I studied Archeology since since I was little I like History, especially everything related to Egypt, Greece, Rome and East Asia. I love sports, especially soccer and martial arts. I am very curious and I like to be researching, reading and others. I also like criminology and criminology, so for some years I have been studying some of that. I like to write on various topics and I hope that my publications are of interest to you

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