“The Ancient World’s Most Massive Inscription”

by David Stuart, The University of Texas at Austin

Looking through the most recent issue of Archaeology magazine, I was fascinated to read about the 2nd-century inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda, Turkey, which once adorned an immense wall of a public stoa at the site. The Greek text is now in hundreds of fragments and much of it is still missing. It’s a remarkable monument in many respects, stunning for its sheer size as well as for what it says: an summation and eager exhortation of Epicureanism, the ancient philosophical school that emphasized materialism, good living, and a healthy skepticism of divine power over human affairs. I was particularly interested by the article’s simple statement that the Oinoanda text was “the ancient world’s most massive inscription.” It’s original size, as presently understood, is thought to have covered between 200-260 square meters of wall space. That’s big.

Portion of the Diogenes inscription from Oinoanda, Turkey.
Portion of the Diogenes inscription from Oinoanda, Turkey.
Copan's Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1987
Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway in 1987

Well, I wondered, how would this compare to the ancient Maya inscription on Copan’s Great Hieroglyphic Stairway? That monument has been an intense subject of my own research for many years now, working is close collaboration with colleagues at Harvard, Brown, Penn, and in Honduras. Over the past three decades we’ve been able to reconstruct a significant  amount of the original inscription and we have a very good idea of what it once said (B. Fash 2011; W. Fash 2002; Houston, Fash and Stuart, in press; Stuart 2005). In several public talks I’ve made the informal claim that the Copan stairway represents the largest text ever built as a single monument, but I now have to doubt that this is the case. In its final version (an earlier monument was roughly half its final size) the inscribed staircase consisted of over 63 steps that were each approximately 7.5 meters wide. The height of the entire staircase as presently reconstructed is about 21 meters. That covers about 158 square meters of space, so smaller than Diogenes’ massive inscription. Within the Maya area Temple VI at Tikal, with its huge inscribed roof comb, might offer some competition to Copan’s stairway. The roof comb itself is 12.5 meters high, and the hieroglyphic text covers a little under 100 square meters by rough calculation.

This all led me to wonder too about the size of the famous cliff inscriptions of Behistun, Iran, which were so important in Henry Rawlinson’s work in the decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform (Behistun’s parallel texts is also written in Elamite and Babylonian). The size of the entire inscribed surface at Behistun is 15 x 25 meters, or 375 square meters — far larger than either the Oinoanda texts and the Copan stairway (Archaeology may need to credit Behistun, then, as the “most massive”).

The Behistun inscription
The Behistun inscription

However, it might not be accurate to call these two old world examples single texts. The Oinoanda inscription is composed of three different treatises written by Diogenes, accompanied by smaller collected sayings and letters by Epicurus. Several texts are combined together, in other words. And at Behistun we have three parallel versions of the same text each presented in a different script and language.

In contrast it seems that the scribes of Copan designed the final version of the Hieroglyphic Stairway as a single inscription. As I argued some years ago (Stuart 2005) the stairway text was built in two phases.  An early version dedicated by the king Waxaklajuun Ubaah K’awiil (Ruler 13) in 710 A.D. provided a lengthy treatise on Copan’s royal history, culminating the dedication of the tomb of K’ahk’ Uti’ Witz’ K’awiil (Ruler 12). A later king, K’ahk’ Yipyaj Chan K’awiil (Ruler 15), decided to update this very visible statement of history. In 755 he expanded on his predecessor’s earlier text, bridging the kingdom’s very recent turbulent history with the glories of the distant past and ultimately to the story of the court’s dynastic founder K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. The later king made a clear effort to integrate his addition seamlessly with the earlier text, both rhetorically and in aspects of visual design.


If we acknowledge that the two phases finally constituted one long inscription, perhaps a case could still be made that Copan’s hieroglyphic stairway, in its final iteration, bears the largest single inscription from the ancient world. While incompletely preserved, its long text does seem more or less cohesive, lacking the discrete sections and partitions we see at Oinoanda and Behistun. I wouldn’t want to force this point too strongly, of course, given how much is still missing of the stairway inscription. We will never be quite certain of its final form and presentation. Besides, the comparisons mean little in the end beyond being an academic exercise. What we can say is that Copan’s huge stairway text occupies a special place alongside those old world examples (and perhaps others I’ve overlooked) as unusually massive displays of the written word, where textuality and ancient monumentality intersect.


Fash, Barbara. 2011. The Copan Sculpture Museum: Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone. Peabody Museum Press and DRCLAS, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Fash, William. 2002. Religion and Human Agency in Ancient Maya History: Tales from the Hieroglyphic Stairway. Cambridge Archaeological Journal (12)1:5-19.

Houston, Stephen, Barbara Fash and David Stuart. In press. Masterful Hands: Morelli and the Maya on the Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copan, Honduras. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, forthcoming.

Stuart, David. 2005. A Foreign Past: The Writing and Representation of History on A Royal Ancestral Shrine at Copan. In Copan: The History of An Ancient Maya Kingdom, edited by E. Wyllys Andrews and William L. Fash. pp. 373-394. The School of American Research Press, Santa Fe.

NEW BOOK: The Maya (Ninth Edition)


The Maya (Ninth Edition)

By Michael D. Coe and Stephen Houston

Thames & Hudson, 2015

The Maya has long been established as the best, most readable introduction to the New World’s greatest ancient civilization. Coe and Houston update this classic by distilling the latest scholarship for the general reader and student.
This new edition incorporates the most recent archaeological and epigraphic research, which continues to proceed at a fast pace. Among the finest new discoveries are spectacular stucco sculptures at El Zotz and Holmul, which reveal surprising aspects of Maya royalty and the founding of dynasties. Dramatic refinements in our understanding of the pace of developments of the Maya civilization have led scholars to perceive a pattern of rapid bursts of building and political formation. Other finds include the discovery of the earliest known occupant of the region, the Hoyo Negro girl, recovered from an underwater cavern in the Yucatan peninsula, along with new evidence for the first architecture at Ceibal.

Michael D. Coe, Author
Michael D. Coe is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University. His books include The Maya, Mexico, Breaking the Maya Code, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization, and Reading the Maya Glyphs. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Stephen D. Houston, Author
Stephen D. Houston is Dupee Family Professor of Social Sciences at Brown University. His most recent book is The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence.

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NEW BOOK: Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History

MIAAcoverMaya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity: Space and Spatial Analysis in Art History

Edited by Maline D. Werness-Rude and Kaylee R. Spencer

University of New Mexico Press, 2015

Maya Imagery, Architecture, and Activity privileges art historical perspectives in addressing the ways the ancient Maya organized, manipulated, created, interacted with, and conceived of the world around them. The Maya provide a particularly strong example of the ways in which the built and imaged environment are intentionally oriented relative to political, religious, economic, and other spatial constructs.
In examining space, the contributors of this volume demonstrate the core interrelationships inherent in a wide variety of places and spaces, both concrete and abstract. They explore the links between spatial order and cosmic order and the possibility that such connections have sociopolitical consequences. This book will prove useful not just to Mayanists but to art historians in other fields and scholars from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, geography, and landscape architecture.

Maline D. Werness-Rude is an assistant professor of art history at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Kaylee R. Spencer is an associate professor of art history and the chair of the art department at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls.

6 x 9 in. 432 pages 50 halftones, 121 drawings

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Death of the Defeated

The third on the series of La Corona Notes is now posted on Mesoweb. This study focuses on one of the inscribed blocks recently unearthed at the site, bearing new historical details about the life of the famous Calakmul king named Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ (a.k.a. “Jaguar Paw” or “Jaguar Paw Smoke” in the earlier literature).

Death of the Defeated: New Historical Data on Block 4 of La Corona’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2

The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture

Right section of La Corona Panel 2. Photograph by Justin Kerr (K4677)
Right section of La Corona Panel 2. Photograph by Justin Kerr (K4677)

Just posted on Mesoweb is the latest in the series of La Corona Notes produced by the La Corona Archaeological Project (PRALC). This note, the second in the series, addresses the challenges in developing a logical designation system for site’s sculptures, many of which were looted from the site in the 1960s. Before La Corona’s identification in the 1990s, Peter Mathews had grouped these scattered blocks and panels and labeled their unknown source as “Site Q”.

The Nomenclature of La Corona Sculpture, by David Stuart, Marcello A. Canuto and Tomás Barrientos Q.