A person using the methods of epigraphy is called an epigrapher or epigraphist. For example, the Behistun inscription is an official document of the Achaemenid Empire engraved on native rock at a location in Iran. Epigraphists are responsible for reconstructing, translating, and dating the trilingual inscription and finding any relevant circumstances. It is the work of historians, however, to determine and interpret the events recorded by the inscription as document. Often, epigraphy and history are competences practiced by the same person.
An epigraph is any sort of text, from a single grapheme (such as marks on a pot that abbreviate the name of the merchant who shipped commodities in the pot) to a lengthy document (such as a treatise, a work of literature, or a hagiographic prescription). Epigraphy overlaps other competences such as numismatics or palaeography. When compared to books, most inscriptions are short. The media and the forms of the graphemes are diverse: engravings in stone or metal, scratches on rock, impressions in wax, embossing on cast metal, cameo or intaglio on precious stones, painting on ceramic or in fresco. Typically the material is durable, but the durability might be an accident of circumstance, such as the baking of a clay tablet in a conflagration.
Epigraphy is a primary tool of archaeology when dealing with literate cultures. The US Library of Congress classifies epigraphy as one of the auxiliary sciences of history. Epigraphy also helps identify a forgery: epigraphic evidence formed part of the discussion concerning the James Ossuary.
The character of the writing, the subject of epigraphy, is a matter quite separate from the nature of the text, which is studied in itself. Texts inscribed in stone are usually for public view and so they are essentially different from the written texts of each culture. Not all inscribed texts are public, however: in Mycenaean Greece the deciphered texts of "Linear B" were revealed to be largely used for economic and administrative record keeping. Informal inscribed texts are "graffiti" in its original sense.
The science of epigraphy has been developing steadily since the 16th century. Principles of epigraphy vary culture by culture, and the infant science in European hands concentrated on Latin inscriptions at first. Individual contributions have been made by epigraphers such as Georg Fabricius (1516–1571); Stefano Antonio Morcelli (1737–1822); August Wilhelm Zumpt (1815–1877); Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903); Emil Hübner (1834–1901); Franz Cumont (1868–1947); Louis Robert (1904–1985).
The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, begun by Mommsen and other scholars, has been published in Berlin since 1863, with wartime interruptions. It is the largest and most extensive collection of Latin inscriptions. New fascicles are still produced as the recovery of inscriptions continues. The Corpus is arranged geographically: all inscriptions from Rome are contained in volume 6. This volume has the greatest number of inscriptions; volume 6, part 8, fascicle 3 was just recently published (2000). Specialists depend on such on-going series of volumes in which newly discovered inscriptions are published, often in Latin, not unlike the biologists' Zoological Record— the raw material of history.