If you are mainly interested in the Romans, you will probably never have heard of Ivan Eframov (or Yeframov), which is a shame. He, virtually single-handedly, invented the study of taphonomy. What’s that? Amongst other things, the study of how dinosaurs (or, indeed, anything) die, or perhaps more precisely, the study of how unlikely it is that dinosaur remains survive for us to find and then stick in museums. Thought the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Great North Museum was local? He’s not; he’s there because kiddies expect a dinosaur in a museum, not because he or his ilk ever roamed Northumberland (T Rexes are mostly found in North America and there are less than three dozen of them known, despite the thousands, even millions, that must once have stomped the Earth in an aggressive, in-your-face sort of way). So the basic point here is that it is very very unusual for a dinosaur to be fossilized.
What does all this have to do with inscriptions? Well, beyond the simple observation that it is not normal for inscriptions to survive, we might observe that epigraphy is the study of the content of inscriptions, but just as interesting is how they got to be found in the first place: this is, if you like (and some don’t), the taphonomy of artefacts (and, lest we forget, inscriptions are indeed artefacts, although scarcely ‘small finds’).
Let’s look at a paving slab from Corbridge (it also happens to be a famous inscription, but the last Roman to walk on it thought of it as part of the floor of a granary). This is RIB 1147 from Site 10, the west granary.
The colour is a modern addition to highlight the fact that these things were originally painted.
There is, if you like, an Index of Interestingness for an inscription. When new, the content’s value is (for the sake of argument) near to 100% and the stone itself close to 0%. As time goes by, the value of the content declines towards 0% and that of the stone increases towards 100% until, at a point when nobody really cares about the inscription (so beyond 50:50), it can be ‘liberated’ without a qualm to be re-used in another building project. This is how most of the stone ended up in Corbridge museum: it was reused (mostly as hardcore in raising the level of the Stanegate). It is also how much of the good stone from Roman London was preserved: as hardcore to make up the 3rd-century Roman walls.
The same is, of course, true of Hadrian’s Wall. Stone was reused on a prodigious scale in the surrounding landscape, often travelling considerable distances if the need was great. During the 19th century, it was sometimes thought by scholars that Roman stones found in Hexham (such as the tombstone of Flavinus) meant there was a Roman site there, although now the preferred explanation (for most, but not all!) is that it was brought from Chesters or Corbridge in the Anglian period. Similarly, Lanercost Priory was built from nearby Hadrian’s Wall in the 12th and 13th centuries. The need for good dressed stone is a powerful driver: I once spoke to a school teacher in Umm el-Quttein (Jordan) who told me a story of travelling stones. When the Princeton Expedition visited the site in the early 20th century, there was a standing Roman town. By the 1980s, it had, with few exceptions, vanished. That teacher told me how the Druze would come down from the Jebel Druze in Syria and carry back dressed stone from Umm el-Quttein on camel-back, wrapped in sheepskin, because it was so highly valued.
This means that the odds are against finding an inscription in its original location. It does happen (one example is the dedication inscription over the fort gateway at Qasr Bshir, also in Jordan), but very infrequently. Most inscriptions have had another life, perhaps as a piece of paving or, more likely, hardcore in a later building project (or perhaps even camel ballast).
So the next time you encounter an inscription, spare a thought for its later life. It is more than just a document, after all; it is an artefact.