“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.