As a historian interested in questions of written culture, my analysis often begins after an inscription has been read and deciphered. Reading these inscriptions leads me to ask questions such as: Who were the people who wrote these texts? Why did they write them? How did they record their identities? Why did certain kind of texts attain importance? How do we understand the link between inscriptional texts and political power?
The task of epigraphy begins on the field. Following the discovery of a new inscription, through field survey or chance discovery, the epigraphist makes an estampage, pressing wet white paper onto the inscription and inking it with black powder so as to make a copy. Subsequently, the archaic characters are read, the record is transcribed, the text is translated, compared with other inscriptions, and its content is subject to historical analysis.
Inscriptions often let us glimpse the scripts and languages in which texts were first written down. They allow us to consider the audiences that these texts reached out to, as well as the institutions and individuals engaged in their organization and production. Today, we don’t think twice before putting down a sentence in writing. But a historian who is studying written culture forever has to consider what it meant to write in a world where scripts were still evolving and literacy was not widespread. I recently co-edited a volume titled Social Worlds of Premodern Transactions: Perspectives From Indian Epigraphy and History (Primus Books, 2021) which examines some of these concerns.