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Inscriptions create direct contact with antiquity

Inscriptions create direct contact with antiquity Uppsala University’s collections contain 24 preserved Greek and Latin inscriptions, including two stone fragments of the same type as the Rosetta Ston

Uppsala University’s collections contain 24 preserved Greek and Latin inscriptions, including two stone fragments of the same type as the Rosetta Stone. “If you take time and think about it, inscriptions give us direct contact with antiquity,” says Christer Henriksén, professor of Latin.

“Standing before these inscriptions is incredibly special. Literature from this era comprises transcripts in thousands of segments that have been changed along the way, but the stone inscriptions are a direct link between us and antiquity. It’s the same stone that a person ordered from a stonecutter over 2,000 years ago, the same stone surface that people of antiquity looked at and read,” says Christer Henriksén, professor of Latin at the Department of Linguistics and Philology at Uppsala University.

The inscription translates roughly to: “Terentia, God’s peace with you” (early third century CE) and is an example of an early Christian gravestone inscription. The name Terentia belongs to a Roman noble family and the carefully carved letters show that it was a high-ranking family: stonecutters were paid by the letter and for quality. The gravestone inscription is thus an example of how, in addition to the poor, early Christianity often attracted women from high-ranking families. Photo: Christer Henriksén.

Christer Henriksén has catalogued and interpreted all of the Greek and Roman inscriptions in Uppsala University’s collections. Uppsala University has 24 inscriptions in stone from antiquity, 18 in Latin and 6 in Greek.

Few preserved

Uppsala University’s collections contain two stone fragments preserved from Egypt of the same type as the Rosetta Stone. The stone fragments have inscriptions in Greek and Demotic, a later form of hieroglyphics. The text is a decree – decision – from priests in Egypt that was carved in stone and distributed to temples throughout Egypt.


Stone fragment of the same type as the Rosetta Stone. The text mentions priestesses with the title “Basket carrier” and priests with the title “Those who enter the heart of the temple to dress the gods”. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.

Today, we are familiar with four priests’ decrees which were communicated throughout Egypt at the time through inscriptions with three script systems on stone blocks between 200-100 BCE. Only a few individual, preserved stones or stone fragments remain.

“They must have been all over the place, but the stones are good for building, or they were destroyed and used for something else.”

The Rosetta Stone is the best known preserved inscription of a priest’s decree. It was discovered in 1799 and because the same text is written in three script systems, of which Greek was readable, researchers were able to learn to read Demotic and hieroglyphics in 1822.

Three-language communication

The texts on the fragments in Uppsala are written in two script systems: Greek and Demotic. But the complete stone certainly also had hieroglyphics.

“The text was written with hieroglyphics to connect back to ancient Egypt, in Demotic so that contemporary Egyptians at the time could read it, and in Greek because it was the language of the ruling class.”

The fragments at Uppsala University are from the first decree and the stone is dated to 243 BCE, about 150 years older than the Rosetta Stone. In 1992 it was discovered that the fragments are from the same stone as the fragments preserved at the Louvre in Paris. It is known that the fragments at the Louvre were discovered in 1908 on the island of Elephantine on the Nile, but it is currently unknown how the two stone fragments ended up in Uppsala.

A list of names unlike any other in the world

In addition to the unique stone fragments from the priest’s decree in Egypt, Uppsala University’s collection also includes a globally unique list of names in Latin carved into a marble slab.


Christer Henriksén displays a marble slab with a list of names of board members in a burial association in the first century CE. The inscription is one of fewer than ten similar inscriptions preserved in the world. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.

It is a list of names and titles. First is a date, followed by names of freed people and slaves, and then another date followed by names and so forth. The era in which it was carved spans from 47 to 69 CE.

There are fewer than ten preserved inscriptions of the same type; the stones in Uppsala are almost definitely associated with a nearly identical stone preserved from the emperor’s villa at Antium (now Anzio, south of Rome).

“The list of names comprises board members of a burial association. Burials were usually handled by the family, but slaves had no family and therefore formed burial associations to take care of burials. The members of the associations were thus freed people and slaves at the emperor’s villa at Antium under the emperors Claudius and Nero in the first century.”

Even though it is only a list of board members, it tells a great deal about life at an emperor’s villa. In this case, villa should be understood as a palace with a very large household with many “employees”.

“The titles tell us a lot about life there; there were butlers, bricklayers, gardeners and fishpond caretakers. The list also includes both men and women, so women were also board members.”

Even simple inscriptions are interesting

In addition to the unique inscriptions, Uppsala University’s collections also contain more typical inscriptions, primarily from gravestones. There are tons of these inscriptions, mainly in Italy, and often, no one particularly cares about them.

This little grave altar is the first example of a gravestone inscription with a “pet name” from antiquity (approximately 150 CE). It was ordered in memory of P. Aelius Felix, a freed slave of the emperor Hadrianus. The orderer, a female slave by the name of Auge (Greek for “sunbeam”), had the pet name Florius engraved (perhaps “flower boy”). Photo: Christer Henriksén.

“We’re lucky to have the more common inscriptions in our collection. Because they’re here, we’ve studied them and found little clues to interesting information,” says Christer Henriksén.



The university museum, Museum Gustavianum, has dozens of inscriptions from Uppsala University’s collections on display, including the Christian gravestone inscription mentioned in one of the captions. The difference between lavish and simpler inscriptions is easily discernible in these stones.

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5 July 2017