Graham Oliver, ‘Formality and informality in Attic epigraphy’ (Dublin, April 24th)

(Paper given at the British Epigraphy Society Spring Meeting, Dublin, April 24th, 2010. Brief report by Charlotte Tupman.)

Formality and informality in Attic epigraphy

Graham Oliver

In the first paper of the day, Graham Oliver applied the theme of the colloquium (formality and informality in epigraphy) to a selection of inscribed materials ranging from the Archaic to the Imperial period. Noting that the method of categorising inscriptions in traditional corpora tends to prevent us from fully examining the potentially complex nature of those inscriptions, Oliver introduced three topics through which we might begin to interpret the subject of formal and informal epigraphy: authority, institutions and location; the formalities of formal and informal epigraphy; and genre.


Addressing the first of these issues, Oliver described the ways in which inscribed texts constitute a direct (or indirect) reflection of the actions or decisions of specific institutions. If we can define formal epigraphy in this manner, then informal epigraphy must necessarily be defined as the expression or reflection of non-institutions. We therefore need to identify the formal elements of institutional epigraphy. Illustrating the point with the example of IG II² 2946, the bilingual Phoenician/Greek koinon of the Sidonians, Oliver noted that whilst there are specific features within the text that might be considered formal, the formality of a text is not limited to its content, but also includes the location in which it is set up, and the form of the monument itself. The very act of inscribing formalises the decision of an institution; yet in fact we know relatively little about the actual process by which inscriptions were allowed to be set up.

We also need to consider the question of whether formal epigraphy must look formal. Oliver demonstrated that some forms of epigraphy might at first be considered informal, but should in fact be classified as formal. Examples include amphora stamps, weights and measures, and even dipinti found on public objects: their formality derives from the fact that they represent the operation of institutions. The appearance of a text, then, does not necessarily bear any relation to its inherent formality or informality. Taking the example of boundary inscriptions, Oliver showed that a text can still be formal even when its lettering bears a close resemblance to calligraphic writing, because it represents the output of an institution. We do not necessarily know whether the institutions represented by texts had authority to set up inscriptions where they did: did the pyloroi, for instance, have the authority to inscribe on the Acropolis? Texts such as IG II² 2292 and 2304, the latter of which re-used an older, previously inscribed surface, force us to question our notions of authority: Oliver noted that despite the fact that it constitutes a clear reflection of an institution, if the list of names in IG II² 2304 had been inscribed on a ceramic surface we might have been tempted not to consider it as a formal text.

If we include dipinti under the umbrella of epigraphy, Panathenaic vases can illustrate the way in which texts that might be considered informal are in fact undoubtedly reflections of state institutions: the vases were given as prizes in the state festival, and the formula (‘(one of) the prizes from Athens’ or ‘I am (one of) the prizes from Athens’) is standardised across the body of vases. Oliver was inclined, however, to the general view that the majority of dipinti and graffiti should be considered informal epigraphy.

Oliver then examined the issue of the introduction of stoichedon (the layout of the text in a grid formation aligned both vertically and horizontally) and its relationship to the development of inscriptions on stone. Stoichedon, which became established in the later sixth and fifth centuries, was a particular feature of epigraphy on stone, and was a common element of formal state documents in fifth century Athens. It was almost never used in dipinti or graffiti, except as a possibly self-conscious imitation of state documents. Oliver warned that despite the limited use of stoichedon, we should not fall into the trap of considering certain epigraphic texts as informal simply because they bear similarities to calligraphic writing.

In the final part of his paper, Oliver employed elements of linguistic and literary criticism to address the question of formality and informality in epigraphy. Following Cobley (Cobley, P., “Objectivity and immanence in genre theory”, in G. Dowd, L. Stevenson and J. Strong (eds), Genre Matters. Essays in Theory and Criticism (Bristol, 2006), 41-54) and others in defining genre as a set of expectations rather than a specific set of features, Oliver put forward the point that we can still define a text as a decree even if lacks certain elements, because the genre ‘decree’ is not fixed absolutely but can be transformed. For Todorov (Todorov, T., “The Origin of Genres”, in D. Duff (ed.), Modern Genre Theory (Harlow, 2000), 193-209), genre is seen as a codification of discursive properties, which Oliver noted might be useful for analysing formality and informality in inscribed texts: these ‘discursive properties’ include the semantic aspects of the text, such as relationships within the text; relationships between persons who read the text; and meanings of symbols that occur in the text or on the monument. Analysing genre in epigraphy exposes the institutions that lie behind the texts, but cannot cover all areas of society, as not all parts of society are institutionalised. Oliver suggested that genre theory might provide one way in which we can define formal epigraphy (the transformation of a ‘speech act’ into genre) and informal epigraphy (the non-transformation of a ‘speech act’ into genre).

Oliver’s paper presented an interesting and thought-provoking argument that we need to identify and consider more carefully the authority behind an inscription, as well as examining the space, location and monument on which the text is inscribed. We might also utilise approaches originating in other disciplines that could prove useful to epigraphers in interpreting aspects of formality and informality. If we are to understand formality and informality in epigraphy, we must define the institutions (or indeed the lack of institutions) behind their creation.

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