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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Written In Stone
Inscriptions from the National Museum of Saudi Arabia
(decorative line)  


Arabic Text

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 Institution

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.

Pre-Islamic Exhibit: Origin & Develpment | Thamudic | Lihyanite | Safaitic | Musnad al Janubi
Islamic Exhibit: Islamic Period | Kufi 1 | Kufi 2 | Naskh
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