Identifying inscriptions

How do you know if it’s already been published? (and why I.Sicily will help).

One of the biggest challenges for the I.Sicily project is making sure that inscriptions are not recorded more than once and, even more fundamentally, working out if an inscription has already been published. This might sound obvious, but it’s not simple: you’ve found an inscription in the museum – and, if you’re really lucky it has an inventory number too. But how do you ‘find’ it in the world of scholarship? This is of course a problem for anyone coming across any inscription, and the normal answer is to check it against the indices of the big corpora – Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum or Inscriptiones Graecae – and of the journals which publish summaries of new and revised epigraphic material every year – L’Année Epigraphique (Latin) and Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (Greek). Even that used to be heavy going, and often relied on the inscription having some reasonably distinctive elements (e.g. personal names) within the text; and many publications do not record the inventory number. In general, things have got much, much easier in recent years with the rise of online databases of texts such as EDH, Clauss-Slaby, or PHI; and the EAGLE project (with which we’re collaborating) is now working to make that even easier by unifying many such projects.

But, as we try to build a corpus for Sicily, there’s a catch-22 – because we haven’t yet built I.Sicily, there is no unified corpus for the Sicilian material, and what is recorded in the existing resources just mentioned is unfortunately very limited for Sicily.

Sicilian inscriptions have been published since at least 1558, when Tommaso Fazello (Fazellus) recorded inscriptions within his de rebus Siculis decades duæ (the Bodleian Library has helpfully put online a pdf copy of the 1830 reprint of the 1574 Italian translation by Nannini). The first real corpus was produced as early as 1624 by the Austrian scholar Georg Walter (Georgius Gualterus), Siciliæ obiacentium insular(um) et Bruttiorum antiquæ tabulæ,cum animaduersionib(us) (Messina 1624 [1625] and Palermo (undated)); and the important Sicilian antiquarian, Gabriele Lancillotto Castelli, principe di Torremuzza, published a corpus in Siciliæ et objacentium insularum veterum inscriptionum nova collectio in 1769 (Palermo). (For an overview of early publication of Sicilian inscriptions, see ‘Corpora epigrafici siciliani da Gualtherus a Kaibel’, by Stefania De Vido, in M. I. Gulletta (ed.), Sicilia Epigraphica (2 vols.), Pisa 1999.)

However, Sicily was both blessed and cursed by this early interest. The volumes for Sicily in both Inscriptiones Graecae, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum are amongst the earliest volumes in those two series, which partly preceded the corpora: G. Kaibel’s Inscriptiones Graecae Siciliae et Italiae (Berlin 1890) became IG XIV, and T. Mommsen’s Inscriptiones Bruttiorum, Lucaniae, Campaniae, Sicilae, Sardiniae Latinae (Berlin 1883) forms CIL X (online at Arachne). The result is that while some 500 texts are recorded for Sicily in each of those volumes, the number of texts in each language that has been discovered since their publication has more than doubled. This would be less of a problem if most of these had been found and recorded in the last 40 years or so, and been picked up consistently by SEG and AE, but the real challenge lies in the fact that a great many of the inscriptions found since c.1890 have been published in relatively obscure places (the only meaningful supplement to CIL X for Sicily, Ephemeris Epigraphica VIII pp. 166-171, was published in 1899).

A huge amount of material was recovered in the 20-30 years following the publication of the main corpora, when archaeological work on the island exploded, especially at the hands of Paolo Orsi, and this is often briefly noted in the Notizie degli Scavi di Antichità. However, the Notizie have not (to my knowledge) been systematically reviewed for such material since, other than by individuals for their own research (this is one of the tasks recently begun by I.Sicily). But even material published, for instance, in the principal Sicilian journal Kokalos in the 1960s does not always make it into wider circulation: a statue base in the stoa of the agora at Soluntum, for instance, published by Vincenzo Tusa in 1963 (V. Tusa, ‘ L’anfipolia a Solunto’, Kokalos 9 (1963), 185-194), falls in a gap in the publication of SEG (although cf. SEG 46.1242c1-2), and so is frequently missed.

Soluntum: Hellenistic statue base in the stoa of the agora. (Photo: J. Prag 2002)
Soluntum: Hellenistic statue base in the stoa of the agora. (Photo: J. Prag 2002)
solunto_agora amphipolos base_left detail
Soluntum agora: detail of left half of statue base in the stoa (Photo: J. Prag, 2002)
solunto_agora amphipolos base_right detail
Soluntum, agora: detail of right half of statue base in the stoa (Photo: J. Prag, 2002)

The situation is compounded by the fact that many editions before the later 20th century, for practical and financial reasons, did not include images or drawings of the inscriptions. This is less of a problem (for identification) when the text is substantial, or intact, or contains significant or unique words; but, when we come to fragmentary inscriptions, sometimes of only a few letters, things are much worse. It is almost impossible to tell whether the fragment with the letter E mentioned in a publication in 1885 is the same as the fragment with the letter E which you have just found in a box in the museum stores. Even an inventory number is unlikely to help, unless the original publication also records that; but the original publication often precedes museum registration; and fragments are often poorly recorded, without detailed description of dimensions or material. Do fragments matter? Well, that’s for another time, but the basic point is yes: firstly, they might join up with another fragment; and secondly, each fragment is evidence for another inscription – and, on an island which is notoriously thought to lack an epigraphic habit, in part at least because the existing publication record is itself so fragmented, recording such fragments helps to change the historical picture. The museum in Syracuse, for example, holds literally hundreds.

So, it’s going to be a slow business. We have, for instance, located and registered some 140 inscriptions so far in the work of cataloguing the collection of the Museo archeologico regionale P. Orsi in Syracuse – but we have only ‘identified’ about 60% of those. That doesn’t mean the other 40% are unpublished (although some certainly are), but only that we haven’t yet worked out where they are published. One of the chief goals of I.Sicily, therefore, is to unify the Sicilian epigraphic record and make it fully searchable, so that others don’t have this problem in future. Among other things, that is why we have teamed up with the Trismegistos project at Leuven, which is generating and maintaining unique identifiers for ancient inscriptions across the Greco-Roman world, in order to ensure that every Sicilian inscription has its unique identifier – and only one of them!

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