by Dr. Ali Saleh al-Moghanam (and) Dr. Paul Michael Taylor
co-editors / co-curators
with contributions by staff members of
the National Museum of Saudi Arabia
in collaboration with the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rich in ancient inscriptions. They form
a priceless resource for the study of the region's cultural and linguistic
heritage. Throughout the country, inscriptions were etched, engraved,
pecked, or even sometimes carved in bas-relief on stones or on the rock-faces
of cliffs and hills. The scribe placing a text into stone (or the person
commissioning that scribe) is very likely selecting the medium for its
relative permanence, and usually is also selecting the location where
the stone is found or placed. The difficulty of inscribing the text
implies that this medium is usually reserved for matters that are of
great (even, literally, monumental) importance.
Epigraphy is the study of such texts, the science of deciphering and
interpreting them. This "virtual exhibition" presents some
examples of the Epigraphy Collections of the National Museum of Saudi
Arabia, many published here for the first time. The exhibition is presented
as the first product of an international partnership between the National
Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC,
USA) and the National Museum of Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia). Thanks to the much-appreciated help of the project's sponsors,
this partnership has been exploring the use of new technologies to improve
and share collections-based research information, and to present the
results of our museum research to a broader public.
Here, we present and examine 54 museum objects which bear examples
of ancient epigraphy. This is a small selection from over 9,000 catalogued
epigraphic objects within the two relevant collections ("Pre-Islamic
Epigraphy" and "Islamic Epigraphy") of the Deputy Ministry
of Antiquities and Museums (which includes the National Museum as well
as regional museums). We supplement our presentation of these objects
with four additional images depicting epigraphy in situ. These
four images were selected from the Museum's extensive photographic archive
depicting epigraphy found on boulders, tombstones, milestones, or rock-faces
located at various sites throughout the Kingdom. This precious record
of ancient epigraphy, scattered throughout the Kingdom like an open
library of ancient and Islamic life, is interpreted here by archeologists
and epigraphers on the National Museum staff (see Credits).
Deciphering the meaning of words written on stone requires
great attention to detail. While we attempt to provide transcriptions
and translations here, we also recognize the importance of providing
full access to the data on which our proposed interpretations are based.
In some cases, for example, a gray-scale image provides insight that
the color image does not. Consequently, in addition to our proposed
translations and discussion, each inscription is illustrated with both
color and black-and-white photographs (which can be enlarged by clicking
on them in the exhibition), as well as a line-drawing or tracing.
The study of epigraphy is an on-going science, and the Kingdom currently
has a very active program of archeological excavations. It is our hope
that, over time, we may expand on the analyses of the inscriptions published
here, and also expand the number of inscriptions published in this format.
"Behind the scenes," both institutions are also working together
to apply new technologies to the organization of archeological data,
and the interpretation of ancient scripts. Such efforts thrive in an
open environment. Therefore it seems best that we immediately apply
available technologies to share the rich historical heritage of the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's history through "virtual exhibitions"
like this one, even as cataloguing of data and research on deciphering
and interpreting that heritage continues.