This page is a Resource page, designed to give you images from our stock and our private collection as well as resources to help you learn more about the fascinating history of the written word.
Please note; There has been much debate about who invented writing. Some say the Egyptians did while others the Sumerian, but did they? What do we truly classify as writing? The early Egyptian and Sumerian writing developed from "Pictographs" or images that represented words of expression. So.....who is to say it started there with the Egyptians or Sumerians, cave paintings goes back thousands of years earlier and represent mans early attempts to express himself. Today Graffiti adorns many of our city walls, so can this be yet another form of writing?
So peruse through this page with an open mind, do some further research yourself and decide for your self where it all began........
Keep checking back regularly for updates...
You will find "Questions" at the bottom of some of the sections. These are there to encourage you to go and research more information on that particular topic. To start with simply type the word into your search engine and see where it takes you. If you get stuck or would like to know more contact us.
We will be having competitions with fascinating prizes to help you learn more about the History and Development of writing. Check below for details.
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What does it mean "to write..." ?
Middle English from Old English word "writan" meaning to scratch, draw, inscribe....akin to Old High German "rizan" meaning to tear or the Greek "rhine" meaning to file or rasp.
To form on a surface with an instrument
To form (as words) by inscribing characters or symbols on a surface
To make a permanent impression of...
Autograph, calligraphy, chirography (handwriting or penmanship), cuneiform, hand, handwriting, hieroglyphics, longhand, manuscription, print, scrawl, scribble, script, shorthand.
So what does writing include and what does it not include?
Questions to ponder:
Are the following writing?
Cave art; calligraphy; written music; lyrics; graffiti; doodling;
We will be looking at many aspects of writing on this page. Some you may agree fit the definition of writing, some you may not...
The intention is to get you to explore the many varied parts that allow us to communicate without using sound.
So go on and explore...
One of the first writing materials known to man was clay...a simple ball of soft, moist mud drawn from the banks of the river, that had been deposited there from the many years of seasonal floods. It was readily available, inexpensive and if fired in a kiln (or accidentally burnt in a fire/conflagration) could last forever, making it one of the most durable writing materials known to man, yet we no longer use it. Paper that we write on today can only last a short time before it begins to deteriorate. The people of ancient Mesopotamia used clay prolifically while the Egyptians used it sparingly in the early predynastic period.
Clay that had not been fired could be reused by simple re wetting the surface and writing again, whereas unfired clay would crumble eventually when left exposed to the elements. The image is of our replica of an Assyrian Wedding Contract.
Papyrus is a writing medium made from the pith of the papyrus plant, that was once found in the Nile Delta of Ancient Egypt. The plant was thought extinct but has been successfully revived. It was abundant in Ancient Egypt, growing commonly to around two to three metres tall but in exceptional circumstances up to five metres. It is triangular in section and thrives in hot, wet conditions. It was used as far back as 3000BC, Egypt for many years holding a monopoly on its sale, exporting it all over the Mediterranean. Our word "Paper" comes from the word papyrus which originally meant "that which belongs to the house". The original word Papyrus comes from the Egyptian word "pa-en-per-aa" which means "that which belongs to the king." In ancient tomes different grades of papyrus was made depending on its intended use.
So how is it turned into a writing surface?
Firstly the outer green pith is carefully removed exposing the creamy moist inner pith, which is then in turn sliced into fine strips. These strips are laid out parallel to each other, slightly overlapping. A second layer is then laid at right angles to the first and then the whole is pressed either by hammering or in a press. After it has dried sufficiently it is then polished with a smooth stone. The sheets can be joined to form a scroll by aligning the sheets horizontal strips along the long axis of the scroll and either gluing or sowing the sections together. In the mid first century AD the codex replaced the scroll, by folding sheets and forming them together much like a book is formed today. Scrolls were usually only written on one side, while the codex was written on both sides. Exceptions to this did take place, and in some cases the text was erased and the scroll reused. The image here is our reproduction of an original papyrus signed by Cleopatra herself.
Check out the University of Michigan's online interactive display of papyrus making HERE.
Check out our great deals on Papyrus paintings on our Interactive Papyrus page.
Parchment is a writing medium made from either calf, sheep or goatskins. It is not tanned like leather but instead goes through a different process to make it into the fine off white surface that was so prized by scribes for thousands of years.
So how is a piece of animal hide made into a fine writing surface?
Firstly the parchment maker known through medieval times as the percamenarius, would select the best quality hides, preferably without any blemishes or holes. The hide would then be washed to clean it in preparation for the next step. It would then be soaked in a bath of lime for 3 - 10 days to soften the hide. It would then be rinsed and soaked again in lime for a short period after which it would be stretched out on a rack and scraped with a special curved knife to remove the hair and the inner skin substance and then left to dry slowly until after more scraping and stretching he would be left with a thin translucent off white surface. Some parchment makers would rub fine talc in to the surface to make it more uniform. In some cases holes would appear during the process and yet manuscripts have been found in which the scribes simply wrote around them.
Legal documents are still written on parchment today, as parchment lasts much longer than paper. This is a common plea legal document from the mid 19th century.
Parchment should not be confused with leather. Leather existed as a writing material since ancient times, a leather scroll dated to 1468BC telling of Tutmosis III and his exploits at Megiddo. Many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are actually leather not parchment, as was seen when the Bedouin that found the first scrolls thought them of so little value that he took them to a shoe maker in Bethlehem called Kando anticipating that they could be made into sandal straps. Luckily though, Kando recognized the scrolls for what they were and advised him otherwise!
The image is of our original 15th century Latin manuscript written on parchment, that was found inside the covers of a later book
QUESTION: What is a "Palimpset"?
Vellum has similar characteristics to parchment and to the untrained eye can look identical. However it is made from calf skin rather than sheep or goat skin and can produce a much finer quality product.. The word Vellum has the same roots as the word Veal meaning calf.
The image here is of an early Book of Hours page written on Vellum. The vellum is so fine it almost resembles tissue paper. If you were to hold it up to the light you can see the traces of blood vessels in the fine tissue.
Paper was a Chinese invention in the second century AD but for over a thousand years passed before it eventually found it way to the west and on in to Europe. Paper made from hemp was found in a Western Han tomb in the form of ancient maps.
In the 13th century paper mills sprang up in Spain, France and Germany.
Paper made during medieval times was made from shredded rags that had been processed manually into a pulp and then gathered on a fine mesh frame, turned out onto interleaving felt layers then allowed to dry.
During this period manufacturers found that the wire mash frame sometimes showed on thinner paper. They then made insignias from the same wire and attached it to the frame so that during manufacture this wire insignia would appear on the paper when held up to the light, and so theWatermark was invented, being used to delineate individual paper manufacturers products.
The image is of our Arabic Linguistic and Rhetoric page written on hand laid paper. The paper was hand laid on a wire screen which had the makers insignia made into it so that when you hold the paper up to the light you can see the "Watermark" in the form of a crescent.
In rare instances text has been found written on copper sheets. The most famous is the "Copper Scroll" found in Cave 3 among the Dead Sea Caves. It tells of a list of precious items of Gold, silver and incense that was buried throughout Judea of which none has ever been found. The image is of a reproduction of one of the two copper scroll segments as found at Qumran.
Text written on pottery was known in ancient times as an Ostracon. These pottery pieces were essentially the scrap note pages of antiquity that were found in abundance as pottery once broken was discarded outside the house and reused to write brief notes and letters. They were used in Deir el Medina in Egypt by the tomb builders of the Valley of the Kings, by Greek citizens who voted to have an unruly citizen "Ostracised" from the community (hence the name Ostracon and by Jewish Zealots on the mountaintop of Masada as they voted to see who would slay heir own people rather than submit to the Romans who were about to break through the fortified walls.
The image here is of an ostracon found in a ruined house in 1st century Jerusalem know as the House of Ahiel because of his name written here.
Writing has been found written on thin sheets of gold. One famous example is the Pyrgi Tablets written in both Etruscan and Phoenician.
Wood was a common writing material in Roman times but most examples have perished, except for a famous collection at the Roman frontier fort of vindolana in Northern England. Many examples of letters written to family and friend were found buried in the wet soils of the fort. The wet conditions excluded the oxygen from the soil allowing these potent examples of written passion from almost 2000 years ago.
The Chinese used silk to make a writing surface that could be used for scrolls. They were used as far back as 200BC. Large text scrolls were designed to be displayed on a wall for periods of time while narrow vertical text scrolls were meant for recording only.
The unrolled scroll is an official text dated to 1724. Note the red seal impressions stamped in ink.
The rolled scroll is a copy of the famous Qingming Shang He Tu scroll dated to 1085. It is a 5.25 meter scroll depicting life during a festival in Bianjing in China and is considered to be China's Mona Lisa. Click HERE for a video description of the scroll.
Palm leaf manuscripts were made from dried pal leaves across much of India and South East Asia. They were dried then text was written using a sharp pointed instrument and carbon soot was then rubbed over the text to make it stand out. The palm leaves were all cut to the same size and bound together between wooden covers with a string through the uses to keep them together. They date back as far as the 5th century BC.
From the Victorian through the Edwardian period school pupils write their exercises on framed sheets of slate allowing the text to be erased and rotten over again and again.
One a stident completed his/her task he/she would erase the chalk often with his sleeve turn the slate over and write a new set of exercises, hence the term "Turning over a new slate......"
The Clay Tablet
THE WAX TABLET
The Wax Tablet
Wax tablets were a portable and reusable writing surface used from as early as 1400BC right through to the medieval period to as late as the 15th century.
They were made of wood, ivory or even bone or horn, they had a recess inside which was filled with a thin layer of wax. To write on them you would use a pointed stylus which also had a broad flattened end that could also be used to erase the text. One could also erase the text by heating the wax.The oldest in existence was found on a ship wreck off the coast of Turkey and is dated to the 14th century BC. It was small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and was most likely a shipping record as it was found amongst the amphorae on the ship.
The Greeks used wax tablets calling them "Deltos" many examples being portrayed on Greek vases.
A wax tablet was found in Ugarit tatted to c1300BC and was called a "Deltu" which translated means a door.
An Assyrian relief dated to c640BC shows a scribe holding an opened wax tablet and an ivory tablet was found in Sargon's Palace in Nimrud.
The Romans called them "Diptych" or if a multipage unit a "Polytriptych". Examples have been found in excavations at the fort at Vindolanda
They were useful for writing speeches, for drafting mathematical exercises, for correspondence and teaching and even for official records.
The photo shows various examples from a large Greek "deltos" that is larger than an A4 page, to a Red was Roman "diptych" (opened) a Multi page "Polytriptych" and a small medieval tablet made of horn with a leather case and wooden stylus.
Note: We have Wax Tablet replicas for sale on our manuscripts page.
The Codex or what we are familiar with today as our present day book format, developed most likely from the Wax Tablet. The name "Codex" comes from the latin word caudex meaning block of wood. When scribes started to change from the scroll format , in which they were writing on one side of papyrus and rolling it, they changed the format to make both better use of the writing surface and to make access to the text more practical. The scroll was made of many sheets glued end to end with text written on one side only. To access a text in the middle, one had to unroll the scroll with one hand and roll it up with the other until he found the section he needed.
The Codex however was formed from sheets of papyrus (and later parchment) that were folded to form a gathering that looked like the pages we have today in our book form. The text would then be written on both sides and to find a section of text one simply had to flip through the pages. Multiple gatherings or "quires" could be aded to the codex, allowing a much larger work to be combined in a single codex than could ever be held in a single scroll.The codex would then be bound in covers of leather.
Below are some examples of some key codices.
NOTE: Reproductions of a Nag Hammadi Codex are available for sale on our manuscripts page. Also available is reproduction, an interpretation of how a 1/2nd century Gospel codex may have looked.
Parchment Codices are still being made today in Ethiopia using the same Coptic Binding method that has been used for almost 2000 years. Below are two examples both being bound using the coptic binding method, with quires made from goatskin parchment.
The one on the left had hand carved wooden covers with marble inserts, the one on the right is missing its original covers, but is a good example of how the book was bound before the covers were attached.
The Bamboo Strip
Libraries served as collections of writings from many varied sources. They existed from ancient times and are a major landmark in most cities and towns across the world. Many famous libraries like the Library of Alexandria no longer exist and have developed almost mythical proportions, yet show the importance the written word has had on civilizations both past and present. A GREAT LIBRARY IS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT......
To a person in the tiny country town of Gulgong on New South Wales Australia the local library was the General store, and was the only source of books he/she had............
To another person living in Washington the Library of Congress was his/her resource......miles apart in capacity but to each person a precious resource!
If you have a great library that you use why not tell us about it or send us some images and we may post it here......
Here are some of the famous libraries of the past and the present,,,
The Libraries of Ugarit - 1200BC
In present day Syria - diplomatic and literary works, as well as the earliest privately owned libraries yet found. Some of the oldest written copies of an alphabet come from Ugarit.
Library of Ashurbanipal - 7th century BC
In ancient Nineveh now near present day Mosul in Iraq. This may be the first cataloged, systematic library in the world. Found by Austen Henry Layard.The library itself was destroyed, but due to the fire during its destruction most of the cuneiform tablets have been preserved, the fire baking the tablets that may have otherwise disintegrated over time. The tablets were stored on shelves which collapsed in the fire but left the tablets reasonably intact. Ashurbanipal became king in 669BC and sent scribes across the empire to gather every text they could find so that they could copy them and store them in two huge halls now known as the Library of Ashurbanipal. "I, Ashurbanipal, have acquired the wisdom of Nabu. I have learnt to write on tablets...I have solved the old mystery of division and multiplication, which had not been clear....I have read the elegant texts of Sumer and the obscure words of the Akkadians and decoded the inscriptions on the stone from the time before the Deluge".
See some of the tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal on our Mesopotamia page.
The Library of Ebla c2250BC
Ebla was a city (now known as Tel Mardich) in present day Syria that once kept a library of cuneiform tablets both as part of the royal Palace as well as one external to the palace. The library held the cuneiform tablets on shelves arranged in group sequence, a fact known by its excavation. When the city was excavated the archaeologist found a room that had been destroyed by fire, the tablets therein had been baked by the conflagration hardening them like pottery. They had been stored on shelves that had collapsed in the fire. Many of the tablets are accounting records though number of dictionary tablets exist with various word forms. This library gives us a window into the life and language of the period. Below is an image of a reconstruction of how a section of the library would have looked...
Library of Alexandria - 3rd century BC.
Thought to be one of the largest collections of books/texts in the world it was thought to be destroyed during Rome's attack on the city during the reign of Cleopatra. Founded most likey by Ptolemy I who employed scholars from across the known world to copy texts for his library. Most of the texts were written on Papyrus scrolls. One of the most famous being the GReek version of the Old Testament Bible known as the Septuagint, titled because of the seventy scribes that were employed to translate the Hebrew text into Greek.
Library of Pergamum - 3rd century BC.
Situated in Pergamum in modern day Turkey, formed by the Attalid kings as a Hellenistic library intended to copy the process of the Library at Alexandria. It was here that parchment was invented due to the shortage of available papyrus on which to copy the texts, made of fine calfskin. Parchment comes from the name Pergamum.
Forum Libraries of Rome - reign of Caesar Augustus
Separate libraries housing Greek and Latin texts.
Villa of the Papyri - 1st century AD
Herculaneum near Pompeii, buried by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. The only "surviving" library of ancient papyrus from the ancient world.Thought to have belonged to Julius Caesars father in Law. The upper story of the villa that has been excavated contained 1800carbonised scrolls that are now being deciphered. More scrolls may exist below this.
Caesarea Maritima - 3rd Century AD
In present day Israel, may have housed the largest ecclesiastical library of the time with more than 30,000 manuscript, being a theological school under Origen of Alexandria.
House of Wisdom Library of Academy of Gundishapur - 3rd century AD
Baghdad, established by the Sassanids from the 3rd to 6th centuries being destroyed when the empire fell in 651AD. The centre was a place of learning for medicine, philosophy, theology and science in Zoroastrian, Persian, Greek and Indian traditions. It was the most important place of medical study of the time.
Library of Constantinople - 330AD
Destroyed by the Third Crusade, thought to be the last vestige of texts of Antiquity.
Celsus Library at Ephesus - 110AD
Formed by Gaius Julius Aquila - one of the largest libraries of antiquity with 12,000 handwritten books. destroyed by fire in the 3rd century.
Deir al Surian - 6th Century - Egypt
The Deir al Surian Monastery was established in Wadi Natrun northwest of Cairo in the 6th century as The Monastery of the Holy Virgin but later changed its name after one of the monks travelled to the east and purchased a large number of Coptic manuscripts written in Syriac. The library now houses a magnificent collection of ancient Christian manuscripts dating back to the 5th century. See http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/06/the-deir-al-surian-manuscripts/
Bodleian Library Oxford - 1602- present
At Oxford University - one of the oldest and largest existing libraries in Europe developed from an earlier library on the site from 1320. It houses a large collection of books and manuscripts.
Library of Congress - 1800 to present
Originally a congressional library it has grown substantially due to additions due to the Copyright Acts and a development of classification systems. It is now the largest library in the world due to this classification system.
Desert Library of Timbuktu -
Timbuktu a remote city in Mali on the edge of the Sahara Desert is thought to have once housed the first University in the world. It was a significant cultural, religious and merchant centre that traded with Europe, Asia and Africa. Its education of Islamic scholars became renown throughout the world. Many manuscripts still exist today from many varied topics of human endeavour.
The Earliest Writing....or not?
Is cave art writing? Scholars say 30,000 years ago people painted images and signs on the walls of caves across France. Paintings, etchings, and signs of various forms have been found. What do they say? "I was here!"," This is me and my herd...." they all are trying to tell a story. The first writings of both Sumeria and Egypt were picture words, they were to eve love into sounds and letters eventually but all were early stages of writing....
So, is Cave art writing or maybe a precursor to writing?These people were hunter gatherers, they didn't live in cities, and they didn't yet require a need for accounting. That would come later as urbanisation started to appear, as people developed a need to account for their livestock, to trade goods.......
According to the historical record, King Darius of Persia left a Greek force guarding his rear when he was attacking the Scythians, but after leaving a thong with 60 knots in it, he asked them to undo one knot everyday and if he had not returned before all the knots had been undone, they should sail home. Tallies have been used across the ancient world. The Chinese used tallies until recently and did the British Exchequer until 1834. The Incas who wrote no script used a form of tally that was far more complex and verged on a writing system.
Clay envelopes with tokens inside were used as a form of accountancy. The tokens enclosed inside a sealed clay envelope could noir be tampered with and so if on delivery of the goods a dispute was questioned the receiver would open the "Bulla" and check the relevant tokens to match the goods. Were these a firm of writing? Perhaps not directly but the were in fact a supplement to writing. Text in the form of cuneiform was written on the outside to identify the owner but the tokens themselves were merely a counting/tally system. The early development of cuneiform came out of a need for accounting.
Early Pictographic Writing
An Early Sumerian Pictographic tablet dated to c3100BC. A tablet made from limestone with words in pictographic format separated into boxes. The hand symbol signifies the owner while the 3 boxes alongside have numbered proper names for materials. The bottom section is the name of the owner. This tablet is a key example of the development of early Sumerian text during the Proto- Urban period when people were beginning to live in towns and small cities. These pictographic symbols would progressively evolve into the cuneiform characters in later texts.
So why did simple pictographic characters evolve?
As society developed, with urbanisation, increasing trade and documentation, the drawing of this type of image was quite cumbersome, so scribes learnt to simplify the signs to speed the process of writing.
THINK ON THIS: Where do we see pictographic writing today?
An Assyrian Dictionary from Nineveh.
The words are arranged in three sets of double columns. The left hand column of each set contains a rare Assyrian or foreign loan word for furnishings. For example, the word "door" appears in the centre. The right hand column of each set contains the equivalent Assyrian word in common use. The left hand column ends with the colophon of the royal library of Nineveh. The original, found in the library of Nineveh, dates from the 7th century BC.
Questions: What was the purpose of Colophons? Are colophons used today in any form? Colophons are found throughout the Old Testament in our Bibles. Can you find any? Who developed the Royal Library of Nineveh? How big was it?
Cuneiform URIII Period
Text Akkadian - Language Sumerian
This is a small fragmented text from northern Israel. It is an inventory or commercial transaction that describes a series of fields alongside canals:
2’ … next to the Kasi canal
3 … next to the Wedutum canal
4 … next to the Wedutum canal
Ii 1’ …
3. 2 (ESHE-area units) … 20 …
4. 2 (ESHE-area units) … 20 …
5. (indented) …
6. 1 (BUR-area unit) 2 (EBEL-area units) …
7. (indented) (Name)
8. 2 (ESHE-area units) … 20 …
BUR was a measure of large estates (BUR = approx 64,800m²)
One ESHE/EBEL is 6 IKU or 1/3 of a BUR: ( more or less 21,800 sq meters or about 18 hectares = 5 acres).
QUESTION: This tablet describes some field sizes next to a canal. Do you think this is a record of land ownership or maybe a transaction? When an excavation takes place and cuneiform tablets are found, some can be found intact while many are found fragmented. How were clay tablets stored in ancient times? Privately vs Palace libraries? What role did Akkadian play as a text in the ancient Near East? How long was it used for? Some clay tablets would be kiln fired while others were merely air dried? Why do you think this was so? Some air dried tablets today are excavated and are as hard as pottery. How could this occur?
The Rosetta Stone
Discovered in 1799 by Napoleons soldiers while building a fort at Rashid (Ancient Rosetta) the Rosetta stone was to become the key to unlocking the Hieroglyphic text of Ancient Egypt. Prior to this the history of ancient Egypt was essentially unknown locked up in the myriad of texts written on temples, tombs and scrolls across the nation of Egypt.
The Rosetta stone was a large basalt stela written by Egyptian priests in 196BC to honour the then Pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphanes for his work.
The stone has imprinted on it 3 scripts in two languages. The scripts were Egyptian Hieroglyphs (top), Demotic (Centre) and Greek (bottom). The Greek was well known by scholars as was Coptic, which has some connections with the ancient Demotic. They key to translation was the royal names written in cartouches in the hieroglyphic text that matched their names written in the parallel text of the Greek. Those cartouche names were also available in one form or another on other monuments from ancient Egypt as well. Shared characters in these names allowed the first stages of translation to start and by 1922 Frenchman Jen Francois Champollion was able to announce he had cracked the code. It was a number of years however before scholars were able to confidently travel Egypt to translate the words on the walls.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus
Papyrus was used in Egypt for thousands of years and was essentially the paper of today. Most works from ancient Egypt written on papyrus were formed into scrolls depending on the length of the work.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a famous ancient medical text from Egypt named after Edwin Smith who purchased the manuscript in Egypt in 1862.
As you can see the text has both red and black inks and is written using the Hieratic text a cursive form of the Hieroglyphs. The red ink sections are explanatory glosses or comments. The original scroll was 4.68m long.
An ancient manuscript page from Timbuktu...
This is an Arabic text hand laid paper page, the text is a treatise on marriage, related laws and inheritance.
The people of Timbuktu cherished their manuscripts so when tales of theft seeped through the people they hid their manuscripts, some buried theirs in steel trunks and others under cupboards, but the ravages of time and the elements nearly destroyed most of them. Now their is a drive to gather and preserve their written heritage, with research and restoration.
This manuscript has water damage, but note these characteristics: The text is in black and red ink (rubrication), rhetorical comments are written in the margins and someone has gone to the trouble to repair the tear with blue thread.
Questions: Where is Timbuktu and why are its manuscripts important for their culture? Does blue thread have any special meanings? Why comments in the margins, after all it is just a text about marriage?
Arabic manuscript with a scribe's Qalamadam - Pen holder/inkwell.
The Schoyen Collection -
one of the most impressive collections of ancient manuscripts and documents from the dawn of writing.
The University of Michigan Papyrus
What is a Papyrologist? Would you like to learn more about the fascinating science and study of ancient Papyrus manuscripts, then...
The British Museum's Writing Of
Mesopotamia - Interactive
A fascinating introduction to the development of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, the "Cradle of Civilisation". Explore and investigate the life of a scribe.
Writing systems and languages of the World.