The Development of Writing Materials: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699

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The Development of Writing Materials: 2000 b.c. to a.d. 699


Today we associate communication technology with high-speed presses and digital computers. However, they are only the most recent of the many ingenious methods people have devised to record and preserve information. The earliest writing surfaces were the walls of caves, where as many as 30,000 years ago images thought to be narratives of hunts or artifacts of archaic spiritual rites were drawn with charcoal and clay slip (a mixture of clay and water). During the next 25,000 years, calendars and inventories were carved into bone and rock. Business and legal transactions, religious texts, and other documents were etched or painted on the walls of public buildings and tombs.

The first materials produced specifically for writing emerged around the fourth millennium b.c., with a corresponding shift from the visual shorthand called pictographs to alphabetic scripts. Texts were either etched with a stylus or drawn with inks made by mixing powdered charcoal, ground insects, plants, or earth pigments with water. By the second millennium b.c., a variety of writing surfaces adapted from local natural resources were in wide use throughout the expanding empires of Asia and the Middle East.


Carved stone tables have preserved many early forms of writing. One such artifact, the Code of Hammurabi (a second millenium b.c. Babylonian king), is a record of the rules of law and punishment, property rights, and the duties of family members "to promote the welfare of the people" and "to cause justice to prevail...." The Rosetta Stone (ca. 200 b.c.), named after the area of the Nile Delta where it was unearthed (the town of Rosetta [Rashid]), is a pronouncement of divine favor by the priests of Memphis on King Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205-180 b.c.) in honor of the ninth anniversary of his ascension to the throne. The message, repeated in Greek, Egyptian demotic (cursive) script, and hieroglyphics was etched into a black basalt stone. The Rosetta Stone's triple-tiered message became the key to deciphering hieroglyphics in the nineteenth century. Runic script, possibly evolved from the Etruscan alphabet of northern Italy, was carved into stone (as well as bone and ivory) by Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, Britain, Scandinavia, and Iceland around the second century a.d. Rune stones were thought to be active vessels for the powerful words carved into them, rather than historical documents.

Clay, available in abundance throughout the Middle East, was used to create portable documents beginning in the fourth millennium b.c. A sharp stylus was pressed into the soft surface of wet clay tablets which were then dried in the sun. Those containing legal and business transactions were often wrapped in thin slabs of wet clay producing a reverse copy of the original. These "envelopes" were labeled to identify their contents, and sometimes marked to identify the parties involved. These dried packets could then be "archived" (cataloged and stored) for future reference. The widespread use of clay tablets coincides with the introduction of cuneiform, a name derived from the Latin cuneus (wedge) and forma (form). The angular writing system, attributed to the Sumerians who invaded Mesopotamia around 3500 b.c., may have become popular among expanding administrations, since angular marks could be created more quickly and easily than the curved lines of pictographs. Approximately 15,000 cuneiform tablet documents created by the Hittites survive from c. 1900-1200 b.c. Gradually scribes also began recording medical theories and scientific observations on clay tablets. One tablet documents a sighting of Halley's comet between September 22 and 28 in 164 b.c. Philosophical, historical, and mythical works were also preserved in clay. One, a 12- tablet version of the Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh survives from c. 1600-1000 b.c.

A less permanent but still versatile recording material was the wax tablet, an ancient version of our "scratch paper." Soft wax in a hollow wood frame was used to record temporary data and was then recycled. Single wax tablets were used in early Mesopotamia, Greece, and Etruria. In the classical period, Greek students used them to practice their lessons. By the first century b.c., the Greeks and Romans were using multiple wax tablets tied together called codices from the Latin codex, meaning "wood." The term derives from an earlier practice of making writing sheets from birch or alder saplings. Beginning around 300 b.c., wood was also used by Mesoamerican Indians, who pounded the inner bark of Ficus trees and covered it with a thin lime-based plaster to create folded screen books.

Between c. 3100-2900 b.c., the Egyptians began making writing material from Cyperus papyrus, a tall, triangular-shaped reed that, though now extinct, grew abundantly along the banks of the Nile river. Our word "paper" comes from "papyrus," meaning "that which belongs to the house" (referring to the ancient Egyptian administration). It was processed by removing the rind, then splitting the soft, inner pith into strips and pounding them into two perpendicular layers to create a two-ply sheet. The pages were washed, dried, and glued together into rolls and wound around a spindle to prevent bending. Many documents were up to 35 feet (10.5 m) long; a few survive that measure over 100 feet (30.5 m). Writing was usually done on the inner, horizontal side, though some papyri fragments have writing on both sides. The polished surface was washable, making it one of the earliest recyclables: It was not only reused for writing, but for "cartonnage" or wrapping in the mummification process.

The earliest surviving papyrus scroll dates to c. 2400 b.c. Among the most significant Egyptian papyri were copies of the Book of the Dead, which were buried with people of distinction to insure their successful journey to the afterlife. By c. 650 b.c. the first rolls of papyrus arrived in Greece, though most papyri that have survived come from the drier climates of the Middle East. Papyrus was the primary writing surface among the Greeks and Romans from around the third century b.c. until after the Arab conquest of Egypt in a.d. 641. Codices (bound books) made of papyrus were introduced in Rome in the first century a.d. Papyrus was used throughout the Middle East until around the eleventh century a.d. when competition from the cheaper rag paper and the overexploitation of the papyrus beds ended its production permanently.

Tanned leather was also widely used for writing throughout the ancient world. Many of the Dead Sea Scrolls (thought to have been written by an ascetic community around second century b.c.) were written on a thin, whitish leather. Leather was used for documents in the Roman empire as late as the first century a.d., but was gradually replaced by the thinner, more versatile vellum and parchment. Technically speaking, vellum is made from the skins of young animals, and parchment from the skins of adult animals, although the terms have come to be used interchangeably. They were produced by soaking the skins in lime, then stretching them across a frame to dry. The hair was scraped away, and the surface smoothed with a pumice stone. Despite their labor-intensive preparation, vellum and parchment were less expensive than imported papyrus and silk, since they could be produced locally from domestic animals. Although they were initially used to create scrolls, eventually the skins were cut into large, uniform, oblong sheets, then folded over and stitched into the codex or book form we recognize today. Many medieval religious books and secular manuscripts—like the c. a.d. 1000 copy of Beowulf (an Anglo-Saxon epic poem)—were produced in this way. The decline of parchment books by the fifteenth century was due to the compatibility of cheaper rag paper with the printing press.

The Chinese were writing on bamboo strips formed into a roll by the fifth century b.c. This practice was eventually replaced by rolls of silk, a material cultivated for clothing as early as the third millennium b.c. The cocoon fibers of the caterpillar Bombyx mori were baked to kill the worms, then dipped in hot water to loosen the filaments. The threads, each hundreds of yards long, were wound around a spindle and woven into long sheets. Both official documents and paintings were created on silk scrolls in China for many centuries. Silk production was introduced to Korea by Chinese immigrants in c. 200 b.c. It spread to India by a.d. 300, and to the Byzantine Empire by the sixth century a.d. However, silk was always expensive even when produced locally. Consequently artisans developed other methods of producing flexible writing surfaces.

The invention of rag papermaking has been attributed to Ts'ai Lun, who ran the Chinese imperial workshop during the late Han dynasty (202 b.c.-a.d. 220 ). He is supposed to have demonstrated his version of paper to the emperor around. a.d. 104-105, although papermaking may have began in China 200 years earlier.

It was made by soaking hemp in water, pulverizing the fibers with a mallet, and spreading the resultant pulp into a mold made of a coarse-grained cloth stretched across a bamboo frame. As the water dripped through the mold, the intertwined fibers dried into sheets. Ts'ai Lun may also have incorporated other materials like mulberry and rags into the mixture. Over time, the Chinese made other improvements, including the addition of starch for sizing and a yellow dye to repel insects. Production time was improved after the invention of a mold cover made from thin strips of rounded bamboo tied together that made it easier to release individual sheets and refill the mold immediately.

Papermaking contributed to the refinement of block printing in China. By the second century a.d., paper was used to make copies of original stone documents like the Confucian classics. The paper was pressed onto the stones, then covered with a black ink, producing a reverse image. This inspired the less costly and more portable method of making copies by printing from wood blocks, an innovation that would also be used in the West until the invention of moveable type. Papermaking technology reached Korea by the sixth century a.d., where the formula was modified to include fibers such as rice, straw, seaweed, and rattan. The spread of papermaking to Japan in the seventh century a.d. is attributed to a Korean monk named Doncho. It was subsequently introduced into India by Arabs who had learned papermaking from captive Chinese craftsmen in the eighth century.


Modern communications technology owes as much to papermaking as it does to the invention of moveable type in the fifteenth century and the digital revolution of the late twentieth century. To a significant degree, religious devotion is responsible for its widespread production. The Buddhist practice of making multiple copies of sacred texts and prayers was a key factor in the initial expansion of the papermaking industry in China. Of the approximately 15,000 books discovered in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in 1906, most were made of paper. Although papyrus was used by the Vatican until the eleventh century, between a.d. 1150-1390 papermaking had spread through Christian Europe. One factor in Gutenberg's pursuit of a career in printing was the opportunity to tap into the market for religious works and the thousands of indulgences sold by the Church. Multiple copies could be made quickly and inexpensively on paper with the printing press; with his invention of moveable type, the press could be reset relatively quickly. Knowing that he could sell few expensive parchment books, Gutenberg printed about 80% of his 200-copy run of the Bible on paper.

Inexpensive paper also made possible the distribution of political and often revolutionary books, pamphlets, and posters. Although the originals of important manuscripts continued to be printed on expensive vellum into the nineteenth century, paper was essential to every major bureaucracy in Europe by the Reformation. The production of cheap paper by steam power in the nineteenth century fed the growing demand for popular reading material like newspapers, magazines, children's books, and novels. Inexpensive scientific, religious, and school texts played an important role in the education and religious life of the working and middle classes.

From ancient times individuals were charged with organizing and conserving documents. Libraries already existed in China and Sumer and Akkad in the second millennium b.c. The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (668-627 b.c.) assembled a clay tablet library at Nineveh during his tenure. By the third century b.c., the preservation of philosophy, history, poetry and other literature was considered so important that King Ptolemy I hired the Greek orator Demetrios Phalereus to collect all the works of the world for his library at Alexandria. Like today's digital backup disks, many surviving documents are contemporary copies of originals, created to preserve important information, and with good reason: the thousands of texts in the Alexandrian library twice fell victim to fires set by invaders.

Unfortunately written work has always been vulnerable to destruction by insects, vermin, air pollution, flood, fire, and accidental or deliberate acts. Many biblical works, carefully copied for preservation on parchment in monasteries throughout medieval Europe were destroyed by fire, as well as by mice and insects who ate their way through the parchment, ink, and glue. Using paper to copy documents has created even greater problems for archivists in recent years. Many paper documents printed on lowrag-content chemically processed paper deteriorated even more quickly than parchment books. Until the revival of acid-free papers and storage containers in the late twentieth century, many valuable documents were lost to overhandling, poor storage, petroleum-based inks, and even their own chemical makeup.

Today, old documents are being saved through digital scanning. The creation of electronic texts may also help slow the depletion of trees used for paper pulp, so that they may avoid the fate of Egypt's papyrus plant.


Further Reading

Allman, William F. "The Dawn of Creativity." U. S. News and World Report. (May 20, 1996): 53-58.

Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archeology. Mountain View, CA.: Mayfield, 1988.

Ceran, C. W. Gods, Graves and Scholars. 2nd. rev. ed. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1986.

Dawson, Raymond. The Chinese Experience. London: Phoenix, 1978.

Duke University Special Collections Library. Duke Papyrus Archive.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. New York/Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Institute of Paper Science and Technology. "The Invention of Paper: The Birth of Papermaking."

Olmert, Michael. The Smithsonian Book of Books. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1992.

Posner, Ernst. Archives in the Ancient World. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1972.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. Berkeley: University of California Press,1999.

University Libraries, University of Iowa. Keeping Our Word: Preserving Information across the Ages. "The First Books."

University Libraries, University of Iowa. Keeping Our Word: Preserving Information across the Ages. "Vellum."

White, J. E. Manchip. Ancient Egypt: Its Culture and Heritage. New York: Dover, 1970.

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The Development of Writing Materials: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699

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The Development of Writing Materials: 2000 B.C. to A.D. 699