Types of inscriptions

The corpus comprises a number of different genres of inscription, unified by their principal speaker or agent, the king. These genres are established based on the content of the inscriptions and the objects bearing them. The pages in this category serve to introduce the specific characteristics of these different types and to give an idea of their target audience.

Monumental Inscriptions

These most historically significant and famous Achaemenid royal inscriptions mark royal achievements or communicate ideals of Achaemenid rule. They are generally located in well visible locations to communicate their messages widely or to explain images engraved nearby, though their aim is not to be widely read in any modern sense. The important thing is that they are there and that the writing is visible, impressive and durable. Most of these inscriptions were set up by Darius I, for instance on his tomb at Naqsh-i Rustam and his accession monument at Behistun, but they also occur under his successor Xerxes, for instance with the texts inscribed in rock niches flanking the Ganj-Nama pass (DE, XE) and near Lake Van (XV). In creating these inscriptions, the Achaemenid rulers followed Assyrian and Babylonian precedent, and their choice of sites often reflect a perception of a site's religious resonance, its location on a well-travelled route or frontier, or an appreciation of the sheer super-human effort required to inscribe the monument.

Building Inscriptions and Inscriptions on Building Components

Found on bricks, tiles, window frames, doorknobs and doorjambs, staircases, columns, gates, and palace/terrace walls, these inscriptions relate to things made by the king or for him in his palace and workshops. These are the most common types of inscriptions and are mainly found at the excavated palace sites of Persepolis, Babylon, and Susa. The more elaborate building inscriptions refer explicitly to construction projects the king undertook himself, continued, or repaired. They generally provide some description of the work conducted and occasionally detail the efforts and materials employed to accomplish it. They finally invoke the protection of the gods, especially Ahura Mazda, for the building. Building inscriptions often serve to proclaim dynastic continuity, since caring for and maintaining the structures left by predecessors was a good way of showing one's respect for one's royal ancestors. Building inscriptions present the king in his capacity as builder and as organiser of imperial resources, showing that he is capable of establishing order in the world. They were encountered en masse by visitors to the imperial capitals and served to communicate the king's power to his subjects and especially the imperial elites in a condensed form, whether they were able to read the texts or not.

Foundation Inscriptions

A special type of building inscription are the foundation tablets, made either of fine stone or precious gold or silver, that were buried in the foundations of a palace before it was erected. As Margaret Root showed by means of an analysis of their content and form, foundation and monumental inscriptions are related and should be considered part of the same genre (2010). Despite these similarities, however, their focus is narrower: They invoke Ahuramazda and, under Artaxerxes II, also Anahita and Mithra to protect the structure being built. Their purpose was to protect the building in a quasi-magical act by means of their ceremonial placement and to communicate with the gods from then on. Like many of the monumental inscriptions, they were not intended to be actually read by living human audiences (Boyce 1982, 94f.; Finn 2011).

Seal Inscriptions

A range of preserved cylinder seals features royal inscriptions, marking the seals out as royal objects (Schmitt 1981). They are inscribed in the three representative languages of the monarchy up to Xerxes, then only in Old Persian, the language of the king. The Persepolis archives also document seal impressions on clay tablets, which ideally allow the seals to be reconstructed (Garrison/Root 2001, 7f. and Appendix 5). The function of the royal seals was to authenticate documents as in line with the king's will. While their main audience was hence the administration, the entanglement between the populace and the population meant that the forms of self-presentation the seals afforded the kings were probably widely encountered.

Weight Inscriptions

The Persepolis excavation turned up a number of official Achaemenid stone master weights used in administration and guaranteed by the king by means of an inscription. The inscription gives the weight designation and the king's titulature in the three (or four) official languages of monumental communication. The units of weight used in the Achaemenid administration were traditional and differ across the language versions, translating the weight into local usage. Their main audience was surely the administration. It is worth noting that the inscriptions on the weights use the same formulae as the monumental inscriptions, having the king speak 'from the weight' in the first person (Schmitt 1999, 57).

Vessel Inscriptions

A whole range of fine ancient vessels of various kinds bears Achaemenid royal inscriptions and can be seen in museums all across the globe. These vessels comprise gold and silver dishes, stone bowls with and without a foot, stone vases and alabastra, slender vessels for storing perfumed oils and ointments (Hdt. 3.20.1). They are typically inscribed with brief attributions to the Great King under whom they were made, often in the three propagandistic languages of the Empire, Akkadian, Elamite, and Old Persian. If they also bear Egyptian text in Hieroglyphs, it is generally to be assumed that they were created in Egypt, since Achaemenid royal inscriptions only contain an Egyptian version in such cases (e.g. DSn, DZc; Posener 1936, 189f.). This suspicion is further corroborated by the errors found in the non-Egyptian versions of the text on these vessels (Schmitt 2001, 192).

Due to the fact that no genealogy is given on the vessels, it is impossible to distinguish the different kings of the same name. All vessels are hence assigned to Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I, with those for Xerxes obviously being the most securely assigned, since he was the only king of his name to rule for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that vessels will not have been made only under the first three Achaemenids, even if the loss of Egypt under Artaxerxes II will have prevented a major source of stone vessel production from being used.

The vessels were created in the royal storehouses and palaces and were obviously an expression of the kings' immense wealth (Koch 1992, 176-182; Briant 2002, 294-297). The fact that the vessels are inscribed hence highlights that they were part of the kings' self-representation as maker and creator, much like the inscribed doorframes, doorknobs and window frames found in Achaemenid palaces (e.g. DPc). While some of them may have been brought as tribute to the king, acting as symbols of fealty, it is also attested that they were used as gifts to mark royal favour, designed to establish, communicate and reinforce bonds of loyalty between the king and his followers (i.e. his bandaka, "bondsmen", the label used for Darius' generals e.g. in DB §25f.; Xen. Cyrop. 8.2.7f.; Ael. VH. 1.22; Lys. 19.25; Briant 2002, 294-297, 304-320; Sancisi-Weerdenburg 1989, 134 and 142 n.14; Gunter/Root 1998; Kuhrt 2007, 295).


Briant, Pierre, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire, Winona Lake 2002.

Finn, Jennifer, "Gods, kings, and men: Trilingual Inscriptions and Symbolic Visualizations in the Achaemenid Empire", in: Ars Orientalis 41 (2011), 219-275.

Garrison, Mark and Root, Margaret C., Seals on the Persepolis Fortification Tablets Volume II: Images of Heroic Encounter (=OIP 117), with seal inscription readings by Charles E. Jones, Chicago 2001.

Gunter, Ann C. and Margaret C. Root, "Replicating, Inscribing, Giving: Ernst Herzfeld and Artaxerxes' Silver Phiale in the Freer Gallery of Art", in: Ars Orientalis 28 (1998), 1-38.

Koch, Heidemarie, Es kündet Dareios der König: vom Leben im persischen Grossreich, Mainz 1992.

Kuhrt, Amélie, The Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period, London 2007.

Posener, Georges, La première domination perse en Egypte. Recueil d'inscriptions hiéroglyphiques, Cairo 1936.

Root, Margaret C., "Palace to Temple – King to Cosmos: Achaemenid Foundation Texts in Iran," in: Mark J. Boda, Novotny, Jamie (eds.), From the Foundations to the Crenellations. Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible (=AOAT 366), Münster 2010, 165-210.

Sancisi-Weerdenburg, Heleen, "Gifts in the Persian Empire," in: Pierre Briant and Clarisse Herrenschmidt (eds.), Le Tribut dans l'empire perse, Paris 1989, 129-146.

Schmitt, Rüdiger, "Eine weitere Alabaster-Vase mit Artaxerxes-Inschrift", in: Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran und Turan 33 (2001), 191-201.

Schmitt, Rüdiger, Beiträge zu altpersischen Inschriften, Wiesbaden 1999, 43-57.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick, Matthew W. Stolper, "A Stone Jar with Inscriptions of Darius I in Four Languages", in: ARTA 2002.005. Available online [http://www.achemenet.com/pdf/arta/2002.005-loc.pdf].

Henry Heitmann-Gordon

Henry Heitmann-Gordon, 'Types of inscriptions', Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online (ARIo) Project, The ARIo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2020 [http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/ario/understandingtheinscriptions/typesofinscriptions/]

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