Big Writing

by Stephen Houston, Brown University

The biggest text or inscription, discussed in a post by David Stuart (Most Massive Inscription), prompts another question. What is the largest writing, the most sizable character in any known script?

A recent trip to China revealed the most complex sign in that system (58 strokes, for Biángbiáng, a noodle we slurped by full moon, at Ramadan, in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an). In terms of sheer size, however, there are certain texts worth noting in the People’s Republic of China (Figure 1). Cheery red, an auspicious color for that society, they appear on separate billboards looking out from Xiamen in the People’s Republic. The intended recipient is the island of Kinmen or Quemoy in the Republic of China. Size gets the message across, “Peaceful Reunification” and “One Country Two Systems.” Built to last, a text on Quemoy, written in an older form of Chinese script, counters with its own slogan, “Three Principles of the People Unite China.” The declarations seem to be on auto-pilot, in mindless riposte to each other. Perhaps people read or notice them. I doubt it, though.  

Bigger texts, with bigger characters, occur elsewhere. The Hollywood sign, shaved down to 45 ft from its original height of 50 ft, is the most celebrated example (Figure 2). Also from China, recently spied from a rain-soaked Bund in Shanghai, is a garish nighttime display, I♥SH. Judging from floor height, each pixelated letter is about 100 feet high. Western states in the US insist on their own gigantism. To mark a school or university, they disfigure the sides of mountains with capital letters (Figure 3). The good people of Quartzsite, Arizona, intent on setting a record for Guinness, at least did so in non-permanent form. Using their own bodies, they formed a slightly wayward “Q” (for “Quartzsite”). Yet the unbeatable champions are the most ephemeral, the sky-writing that, having made its point, loses out to the wind (Figure 4). Or, in an example of pure megalomania, found for me by Steve Chrisomalis, there is the name of a sheikh in Abu Dhabi, visible from space (Sheikh’s Name from Space). Each letter is approximately 500 m long. The sheikh, a member of the royal family, has since had the letters removed, apparently at the insistence of his kin. He still owns the world’s largest jeep, built at a scale of 4:1 (Hamad). 

Bigness has a reason. It obtrudes, insists on being read. It imposes. To create or maintain such letters or characters involves a level of control or will that is beyond the ordinary. There is also sheer legibility and the intended size of an audience. The letters had better be big to be seen from Quemoy, the Bund, a valley bottom in Utah or by people spread out across Los Angeles. Yet these observations, all clearly valid, do not quite capture the local decisions or conditions behind big signs. Why should a university be allowed to impair the beauty of a mountain, a developer erect “Hollywood[land]” or the owner of a Chinese skyscraper broadcast a banal saying to thousands?  Is the owner the “I” of that display or is the love of Shanghai a sentiment that each viewer is obliged to share?

Being big, then, is to be unavoidable, to underscore clout, and to be seen by many.  The Maya evidence shows why some of this holds true, but why scale could have other motivations. There is little doubt that the large size of the stucco glyphs on the Temple of the Inscriptions, Tikal, has much to do with ensuring legibility from far below (Tikal Temple VI). Dimensions are about 85 cm across (Martin 2015:2). This also applies, probably, to the abysmally published glyphs of Early Classic date on the roof comb of Structure A-2 at Río Azul, Guatemala (Adams 1999:fig. 3-19; Figure 5). Other glyphs of large size must have had alternative motivations. Río Azul is also known for the large directional witz or “hill” glyphs that adorn the walls of now-decayed tombs (their erosion is one of the scandals of Maya archaeology; Figure 6). Then there are the inexplicably large glyphs on the sides of Yaxha Stela 3–their exact dimensions are unavailable to me now, but, if memory serves, they measure well in excess of 40 cm high (Figure 7). The real Maya champions, however, are not those on Tikal Temple VI, but the “giant ajaw” glyphs and “giant ajaw” altars that concentrate at sites like Caracol, Belize (e.g., Altar 6, Figure 8, Beetz and Satterthwaite 1981:84, fig. 21b). None of these signs ever exceed human height, evidently an operative limit. For those that stand alone, there may have been an existential property at play.  The glyphs are almost figural, glyphic but atextual. Their size reflects a mindset in which practical reasons for large scale–visibility, assertion, intrusion–gave way to signs made big because they existed as places and people.


My thanks go to Steve Chrisomalis, Simon Martin, and Felipe Rojas for their thoughts on Bigness.


Adams, Richard E. W. 1999. Río Azul: An Ancient Maya City. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Beetz, Carl P., and Linton Satterthwaite, Jr. 1981. The Monuments and Inscriptions of Caracol, Belize. University Museum Monograph 45. Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.

Martin, Simon. 2015. The Dedication of Tikal Temple VI: A Revised Chronology. The PARI Journal 15(3):1-10.