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Experiencing Epigraphy: Cognition & the Importance of Doubting your Senses

Written by Abigail Graham |

Abigail Graham writes about the research project which she is carrying out at the ICS

In Dickens’ famous “The Christmas Carol” the spirit of Jacob Marley visits Ebenezer Scrooge in his home, and Scrooge is so shocked and incredulous, he makes an unforgivable pun…

Ghost: “Why do you doubt your senses”

Scrooge: “Because a little thing affects them, a slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard…  There is more of gravy than of grave about you…..”


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As a shrewd Scrooge illustrates, reconciling our sensory experiences of an event with our expectations is a difficult undertaking. Senses are not definitive, they can betray us, but they can also play a crucial part in countering our expectations. The survival of an object or account can lead us to treat a source as a factual, as opposed to a subjective version of events. Historians and archaeologists are often haunted by ghosts of expectation, which can play a defining role in interpretation: if one is looking for the mask of Agamemnon, a lost archive or an accurate account of a ritual procession, one is likely to find it, whether or not it exists.

After studying monumental writing on public buildings for 20 years, I remain tempted by the siren song of ancient voices: this writing has survived two millenia, surely it was revered and forged in truth. I want to believe the ancient whispers of success, glory, and inviolability that ancient monuments claim, just as I would like to believe that my engagement with ancient monuments is like that of an ancient reader, but neither is true.

How we access information can also distort our views: inscriptions are often found in a book or a website, written in a recognisable typeface with added punctuation, and a translation. Modern readers are more inclined to accept a published text, overlooking possible variables in sensory engagement with an object in context, such as lighting, legibility, lettering, organisation, spacing, accessibility, location, weather, or noise. These variables, which played a primary role in the experience of ancient viewer, can be lost in the translation from monument to text.


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For example, when one encounters a large collection of documents in a book, such as the “Archive Wall” at Aphrodisias, a series of Imperial letters dating from 39 BCE into the mid 3rd century CE,  recording the city’s special status and relationship with Rome, published in Reynolds’ Aphrodisias and Rome (1982) or online I.Aph2007; it is natural to assume this collection of documents, presented as a useful archive for modern scholars, played a similar role for ancient viewers (See fig. 2a: An entry from I.APh 2007 8.29).


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Approaching these documents as a monument, however, inscribed in five columns across a shadowed entranceway in the north parodos of the theatre at Aphrodisias, present a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles for the viewer (Image 2.b). Inevitable doubts creep in: Did anyone read these inscriptions? Were they accessible? Do they represent a truth or an aspiration? My research at the ICS attempts to address these questions and to imagine or recreate ancient sensory engagements with monuments in their urban contexts.


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Cognitive approaches facilitate attempts at placing oneself in the shoes of an ancient viewer. Recent studies in cognitive neurology (see Prof. S. Dehaene (2010)’s recent book and public lectures have shown how the process of reading was developed through a pre-existing neural network: how we process a visual landscape. How a viewer engaged and interpreted monumental writing was inextricably linked to their experience of a broader visual landscape.

Imagine walking down this crowded passage on a performance day (Image 3, Archive wall is on the lefthand side). There is a constant flow of traffic as people enter, chattering about an upcoming event. There is no place sit quietly and read, nor was it well-lit for most of of the day. This bustling entranceway was among the least-suited places for a thoughtful reading.  In this context, reading was likely a brief encounter by a passing viewer, which imposed a number of constraints. That is not to say that no one read these documents.  The careful arrangement of the inscription across the columns, the prominent heading, larger letters in the margins, use of indentations and spacing, suggest that writing was meant to be seen, but perhaps not read in its entirety or in one sitting (Image 4: below).


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Exploring the cognitive process of how we read read can help us understand how ancient carvers and viewers addressed the difficulties presented by the physical context.  This monumental writing was painstakingly organised on specific spaces with visual cues (spaces, decorations, margins, larger letters) as well as coloured paint.  Cognitive neuroscience illustrates how these features played a transformative role in reading: color creates contrasts, rectilinear capital letterforms can be decoded quickly, empty spaces (vacats) and paratextual elements (margins and decorations) played a crucial role in delineating the text; drawing the eye to key points of information (the author, recipient, greeting  and theme of the letter). These visual cues formed patterns in two ways, both in the columns (top to bottom) and on a horizontal line of vision (across the columns) (Image 5: below). Both features were useful, particularly for viewers in motion, highlighting the format or formula of a letter, so that passing readers could discern the writing as well as (to some degree) its form and function.


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The twenty-odd letters inscribed on the wall, which range in time from the Triumviral period (mid 1st c BCE) into the 3rdcentury CE, are a subjective selection of letters, chosen for a specific purpose: they are not a comprehensive collection of Imperial letters to Aphrodisias (see reconstruction from Kokkinia’s recent article 2016 article). In fact, some letters are not addressed to Aphrodisias, but to public officials or other cities (e.g. Smyrna (a provincial capital in Asia Minor) and the island of Samos). The letters share a tone of respect and warning from the emperor, regarding the special nature of Aphrodisias’ position in the Roman Empire. These messages, often at the end of a letter, were visually accentuated with spaces and/or decorations to draw the eye of the viewer.



The presentation of public writing can also provide clues about the function of monumental writing (e.g. was the “Archive Wall” intended as an archive?). On a practical level, there are a few issues in accepting this dossier collection as an archive. Some inscriptions are difficult to access (See fig 2b above), it could be too high (column 2 is 5+ meters high) or too low (the lowest level was at hip height: less than one meter high).  The letters appear to have been edited to fit within the space and to emphasise messages about the city’s privileges. These  may not have been “true” copies, unlike more accessible papyrus scrolls that were probably available in a local archive, where readers were not exposed to crowds or the elements.

Questioning how an ancient reader engaged with this inscription is a way of exploring the transformation from text to monument in antiquity. From a practical or sensory perspective, the experience of viewing and/or reading inscribed documents was often quite distinct from other forms of reading.  Stepping away from expectations of legibility and immutability of these documents, we can begin to experience the monument in a different way.  Altering the location and appearance of writing, as well as editing and arranging the text, probably reflects a different function: such as an honorary monument, intended for a broader audience. This makes sense, as the theatre hosted large and diverse audiences: locals, citizens, freedmen, foreigners, officials.

Exploring sensory experiences in our approaches to the ancient world need not lead us into darkness, rather it is a way of bringing our own ghosts of expectations to light, of exploring the veracity of monumental claims. Our view of the past is neither complete, nor perfect, and when it comes to understanding an ancient viewer, a little bit of doubt can go a long way.

This research will be formally published in the American Journal of Archaeology this October, and is also explored in forthcoming edited volume “Senses and Cognition”.

Blog: CaveatLector: Reading Rome

Twitter: @abby_fecit