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Reading Inscribed Letters from Roman Macedonia

By Graham Oliver
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RISD Museum’s important Greek inscription dates to the period when Rome dominated the Eastern Mediterranean. It was set up probably in 137 CE, during the closing years of the Emperor Hadrian (reign 117–138 CE), whose message to the Macedonians is reproduced on the stone. What interests me here is the way those letters have been inscribed, how we study those letters, and what this object can tell us.

In 2015–2016, I have been studying this stone inscription in my capacity as one of the Mellon teaching fellows at the RISD Museum. The study has been one element in my review of objects inscribed with ancient Greek in the RISD Museum collection. This review includes both objects on display and objects in the storerooms. The Museum’s conservators, curators, and staff facilitated my work in making a drawing of this stone. The drawing has the advantage of allowing much greater focus on the lettering, as can be seen in the image below (and in contrast to a photograph, above).

Oliver Tracing 1bitb And W Topedge

Drawing (on Mylar™) of RI.Prov.RISD.MA.G.1988.060

To produce this drawing, we laid Mylar, a plastic paper that has good archival qualities, over the stone. I traced the outline of the stone onto the paper, then carefully drew, using a thin permanent marker, the letters and incised cuttings, such as the three ivy leaves (hederae) that set off important parts of the inscribed document.


Ivy leaf (hedera)

The result is a 1:1-scale drawing of what I can see of the ancient inscription. This kind of drawing offers a really good way of studying the inscription, and especially its lettering. Obviously there is some room for interpretation: good (or bad) lighting can make “reading” the stone more tricky. But one advantage of this method is that although it requires contact between the stone and the plastic sheeting, it is a much less intrusive technique than the traditional method, squeeze-making, in which a moldable material is pressed into an inscription to create a cast.

Squeeze-making dates back several hundred years in Europe, at least to the 16th century, but a related technique, rubbing, had become well-established in China by about 700 CE. A squeeze reproduces an impression of the inscribed letters. In the more developed methods used now, this process involves laying wet chemical filter paper on the cleaned surface of the inscription.


A brush—ideally a brush designed for squeeze making—is used to hit the wet paper at 90 degrees to the surface, typically working from the center outwards to remove air bubbles and so to squeeze or tamp the paper into the incised cuttings. The paper is left to dry on the stone and then is removed with care. As you can imagine, this kind of method could not only damage the stone, but may also remove traces on the stone, such as original paint. Despite these risks, when working in the field, an archaeologist will make a squeeze of an inscription, in case the stone is damaged, lost, or destroyed.

In the academic study of inscriptions, a squeeze can often be the only record of a stone that in later years was destroyed or lost. Squeezes allow the careful study, and re-examination, of inscriptions, and they facilitate the comparison of one inscription, or fragment, with another. In today’s connected world, many collections of squeezes are being digitized, making even more accessible the study of these important materials. Various institutions across the world now make their squeezes available online, including, for example, the Macgregor Squeeze Collection, UBC; CSAD Center for Epigraphical and Paleographical Studies, OSU. Probably the largest collection of squeezes of Greek inscriptions is Inscriptiones Graecae and the British Institute at Ankara Collection for squeezes related to Asia Minor. Some important photographic collections of inscriptions can be found at Eleusis and Upper Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and Patras in Achaea.

Despite the value of squeezes, the drawing of the Hadrian inscription onto “plastic paper” was a less harmful intervention. Museums are cautious and only allow the Mylar technique if the stone is in a good enough condition, but this operation can usefully replace the paper squeeze for some purposes. One can usefully combine these images with notes made from a physical examination of the stone itself to build as accurate a picture as possible of the characteristics of the lettering. The drawing can also provide a good illustration for publication of the inscription.

The close examination of lettering allows the researcher to make advances in several different directions. The style of lettering can be compared with inscriptions from the same region. There are, for example, well over 6000 Greek inscriptions from Macedon in the historical Greco-Roman period (ca. 800 BCE–ca. 400 CE). The RISD inscription displays some features for which several parallels can be found and others that are more unusual. Characteristic forms are the epsilon (letter Ε) and xi (letter Ξ), which can be seen on inscriptions elsewhere in the region; the omega (letter Ω) is perhaps a little more unusual, with fewer parallels.


Epsilon (= Ε): the first, fourth and sixth letters


Xi (= Ξ): the fourth letter


Omega (= Ω): the first and sixth letters

For comparison, KERA offers photographs of inscriptions from Upper Macedonia; and OSU hosts images of the J. M. R. Cormack Macedonia collection of squeezes. If we collect inscriptions from the same region of more or less the same date, what we find, however, is a variety of letter forms that were inscribed by letter cutters. In some rare cases, the style of lettering changes within the stone itself, shifting from the regular to more curved (or lunate) forms. (An example of this is IG X 2 1 no. 503; for a photo, see L. Robert, Rev. de Philologie. 13 [1939] pp. 128–131 with pl. II.)

If enough inscriptions, with a sufficiently large number of letters, can be brought together from one region or community, one can, in theory, start identifying the “hands” of the letter-cutters who carved the inscription. Steve Tracy, often using the squeeze collection at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton (pictured here), has identified more than sixty different craftsmen who cut inscriptions in Athens between about 340 and 86 BCE. (Here is a list of some of Tracy’s publications).

For now, the inscriptions of Macedonia await such a comprehensive treatment, but close examination of this stone in the RISD Museum collection and the drawing of that inscription using the Mylar sheet make it more likely that advances can be made in the important study of epigraphical lettering and design.

Graham Oliver
Professor of Classics and History. Brown University