How to get started?
Studying inscriptions usually starts with so-called epigraphy. An epighrapher reconstructs, dates, and describes any particularities of the inscription or its surroundings. Traditionally this role is associated with archeology. After the process of epigraphy the historian can start interpreting the meaning and context of the inscription. How should we interpret finding a Greek inscription that praises an Arab caliph for example? More and more we see that epigraphers and historians work very closely together and in some cases the epigrapher is the historian or visa versa. Especially in the new but expanding research field of pre-islamic and early islamic (desert) inscriptions this is the case. In this field the inscriptions that are found are mostly graffiti, that is non-monumental inscriptions. These graffiti are carved by individuals on stones and thus differ from the ‘professional’ inscriptions that we find on monumental plaques and tomb stones for example. Inscriptions can provide historians with all kinds of information, quite a few inscriptions are dated and can thus serve to date buildings, some inscriptions are multilingual and can provide data on multilingualism, but also when only one language is used, this gives the historian an insight on how language functioned and developed in society. Inscriptions applied for decorative purposes tell us amongst other things about wealth/ prosperity and craftmanship. In order to interpret such decorative inscriptions in the Islamic era correctly, extensive knowledge of Quranic verses and knowledge of literature and poetry is necessary to determine what the inscription refers to.
The first Western scholar that recognized the importance of Arabic inscriptions was Max van Berchem (1863- 1921). So Arabic epigraphy in general can be considered a fairly young field. For a very general introduction on inscriptions and epigraphy the Encyclopaedia of Islam offers a good starting point under the term “Kitābāt”
For pre-islamic inscriptions from ancient Arabia – an even younger field- the work of Michael Macdonald is indispensable. A good starting place would be for example: Macdonald, M. C. A. “Ancient Arabia and the Written Word.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 40 (2010): 5–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41224041.
The Thesaurus de’Epigraphie islamique is a key resource. You have to register to gain access. Make sure to enter the relevant “critère de recherche” before searching.
Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions (DASI): http://dasi.humnet.unipi.it/
Online Corpus of the Inscriptions of Ancient North Arabia (OCIANA): http://krcfm.orient.ox.ac.uk/fmi/webd#ociana
The largely Arabic-language website of the Sahra Team has a range of materials related to Arabia. You can search for keywords or images using terms like “نقش”, or browse according to location.