For the history and examples of epigraphy, see histories of appropriate cultures, countries, languages, literatures, and periods of art. See also calligraphy.
Outside Western history, epigraphy was of importance in two independent civilizations—in the remarkable art of the Maya, Toltec, and Aztec cultures (see pre-Columbian art and architecture), and in China. Also notable is the exotic mid-Pacific epigraphy of Easter Island. The earliest Chinese inscriptions are on pottery (c.2500 B.C.) and bronze (c.1500 B.C.), and there are later writings on bone and tortoise shells. Dating from the classical period, before 200 B.C., are odes on great stone drums found in Shaanxi. The invention of paper (c.A.D. 100) ended the role of epigraphy in China. The bilingual inscriptions near Orkhon contain minor Chinese texts as well as the oldest known Turkic material.
The Hindus used palm leaves for writing early in their history, and their inscriptions do not record the older forms of their language. The most important are Prakrit inscriptions of Asoka (3d cent. B.C.). The first Sanskrit inscriptions date from some centuries later.
The course of Western epigraphy begins in Mesopotamia and on the Nile. The Mesopotamian writing, cuneiform, was invented c.4000 B.C., probably by the Sumerians. It was created for writing on sun-dried brick. This combines durability with lightness and contrasts favorably with all other epigraphic materials in convenience of making and handling. It thus anticipates some of the merits of paper (see Babylonia; Assyria; Hittites; Elam; for notes on examples of epigraphic treasure-troves, see Uruk; Lagash; Nineveh; Nippur; Susa; Tell el Amarna; Boğazköy).
An Eastern congener of Mesopotamian epigraphy is found in the seal inscriptions on faience and ivory (c.3000 B.C.) at the archaeological sites of the Indus valley civilization. Long after, in Persia, the Achaemenids revived cuneiform writing in an altered form; their chief monument is the Behistun Inscriptions (c.500 B.C.) of Darius I.
In Egypt the hieroglyphic epigraphy had a parallel development. From the I dynasty (4th millennium B.C.), inscriptions of the Nile present a grand panorama of history, past the age of the pyramid to the XII dynasty, heyday of hieroglyphic writing, then to the New Empire, with the splendid rock inscriptions at Thebes. Egyptian epigraphy lost its vitality more from the development of papyrus than from the downfall of the kingdom. Its influences are found everywhere in the Arabian peninsula in inscriptions of the 1st millennium B.C.; examples are the Moabite stone, Phoenician stones and coins, inscriptions near Damascus, and the Himyaritic writing of Yemen (see Sheba).
In the Mediterranean, the earliest epigraphy of Greek culture appears in Aegean civilization and Minoan civilization. In Cyprus there are inscriptions of many ages, cuneiform and Greek writing side by side. From the expansion of Greece through the course of Roman history, epigraphy flourished everywhere, and inscriptions are literally innumerable. Among the older Greek inscriptions are those on vases, coins, votive offerings, statues, and the like. In addition, there are accounts of expenditures in temples, annals (e.g., the Parian Chronicle on Páros), codes of laws (at Gortyna), decrees, bookkeeping accounts, lists of citizens, ostraca (see ostracism), and many graffiti (wall scribblings; see graffito).
Greek influence was, of course, decisive in Italy, first in the inscriptions of the Etruscan civilization. There are also many inscriptions in Italic languages, notably the Iguvine Tables. Latin epigraphy began with religious documents, but by the end of the republic it was touching every phase of life. Contemporary with the late republic there was a Celtic epigraphy in Gaul, at first in Greek letters. However, the chief Celtic inscriptions are in the ogham writings of the Christian era. The Germanic runes are another European alphabet used in inscriptions.
Latin epigraphy extended in time far beyond the Roman Empire. The stoneworkers of Christianity adapted the old forms, first in the catacombs, then in churches. Modern monumental inscription is in the same tradition, but materially renovated by the neoclassicism of the Italian Renaissance.