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What Is Paleography?

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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2016
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Paleography, sometimes spelled “palaeography,” is the study of writing. Specifically, it is the study of ancient writings and can include studying the methodology of the physical act of creating writing as well as deciphering and reading ancient manuscripts. It differs from linguistics, which is the study of language.

Some people become experts in paleography, often focusing on one main culture, such as the Maya or Aztecs, or on an area of the world, such as Egypt, Greece or Rome. These experts spend much of their time reading and attempting to translate the writings of ancient people, but they also investigate how writing affected the cultures of the times. The ability to write was restricted to the religious orders in many ancient cultures, so paleographers often spend time studying monks, priests and other religious leaders as well.

Other professionals also find paleography to be useful in their careers. For instance, historians, particularly those studying ancient times, often find that an ability to understand ancient writings helps create a clearer timeline of historical events. Anthropologists and archaeologists also frequently study paleography to help place people, events and structures within cultural contexts.

Paleography extends far beyond translating the written word, however. It also studies the methodology of writing. This can include the study of ancient instruments, including chisels, quills, printing blocks and early pencils. It can also include the study of ancient inks and writing materials, such as papyrus and plant-based inks.

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It also involves the study of the importance of writing, itself. In some cultures, writing was considered a sacred act and was conducted only in specifically prepared areas. In others, anyone capable of forming letters and symbols might create a document. Some cultures wrote only to document events or information, while others wrote for fun or religious purposes.

In addition to helping scholars understand ancient cultures and history, paleography can help experts differentiate between actual ancient documents and forgeries. In most cultures, the style of writing, including word use, sentence structure, word formation and handwriting, changed over time. Paleographers can use clues provided by these details to uncover fakes.

The word "paleography" is a combination of the Greek words palaiós, meaning "old," and graphein, meaning "to write." The term was used at least as early as 1708, when the Benedictine monk Bernard de Montfaucon wrote Palaeographia Graeca. Another Benedictine Monk, Jean Mabillon, is considered the father of the modern study of paleography.

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