Ancient Writing Materials

Contents: Introduction *Papyrus *Parchment *Paper *Clay *Wax *Other Materials **
Reeds, Quills, and other Writing Instruments* Ink* Other Tools Used by Scribes **
Technical Terms Used in Describing Writing


Biblical manuscripts, with a few minor exceptions such as verses written on amulets and pots, are written on one of three materials: Papyrus, Parchment, and Paper. Each had advantages and disadvantages. Parchment (treated animal skins) was by far the most durable, but also the most expensive, and it's difficult to get large numbers of sheets of the same size and color. Papyrus was much cheaper, but wore out more quickly and, since it is destroyed by damp, few copies survive to the present day, except from Egypt (and even those usually badly damaged). Paper did not become available until relatively recently, and while it was cheaper than parchment once paper mills were established, the mills had high overhead costs, so they were relatively few and far between; paper was by no means as cheap in the late manuscript era as today (when paper is made from wood pulp rather than rags).

The following sections discuss the various types of ancient writing materials and how they were prepared.

We might note that, once the material was prepared, pages were prepared for writing in much the same way no matter whether they were of parchment, papyrus, or paper: The quires were laid out and the pages pricked and ruled (that is, the pages were measured and holes pricked at regular intervals and grooves scored into the pages using a leaden or sharp point, so that the scribe would have a straight line reference). Ruling styles varied from region to region (e.g. in western Europe, pages were ruled all the way across a folio before being folded; in Britain, they were folded and then ruled page by page; some schools ruled both sides of the page, others only one; some scribed ruled every line, others alternate lines or even, in some Egyptian writings, every third line) and very slightly from material to material (only one side of a papyrus sheet needed to have the lines ruled, since the fibre gave a parallel reference on one side -- and as a result, some papyri do not seem to have been ruled at all, although we observe the pricked holes for ruling in some manuscripts, including P66). But the general picture is the same.

An interesting note about scrolls is that the pricking and drawing of borders was sometimes done before the individual sheets were combined into a roll; there are some with border elements that do not align.


The earliest relatively complete description of how papyruswas prepared comes from Pliny's Natural History (xiii.11f.):"Papyrus [the writing material] is made from the papyrusplant by dividing it with a needle into thin [strips], beingcareful to make them as wide as possible. The best qualitymaterial comes from the center of the [stalk]," with lessergrades coming from nearer to the edges. The strips are placedupon a table, and "moistened with water from the Nile...[which], when muddy, acts as a glue." The strips are then"laid upon the table lengthwise" and trimmed to length,after which "a cross layer is placed over them." Thesecross-braced sheets are then "pressed together, and dried inthe sun."

This statement has its questionable parts -- e.g. there is no evidence that water from the Nile as such can be used as a glue, though it is possible that some sort of glue could be made from some sort of soil found by the Nile. (An alternative possibility that I have not seen elsewhere is that perhaps Nile water was used as a sizing agent to smooth the surface of the papyrus -- it might perhaps have carried a suitable sort of clay. But this is only a wild guess.) Pliny and Varro also state that papyrus as a writing material was unknown in the Greco-Roman world before Alexander the Great, which seems to be false (note the existence of the word χαρτες for papyrus, which became charta in Latin; there seem to be records of papyrus being used well before Alexander), and deny that parchment existed as an alternative until still later than that, which is patently false. Nonetheless the basic description is certainly true: The stalks were divided into strips, braced by having another layer of strips stuck across them perpendicularly, pressed, and dried.

The details are not at all clear. For example, some haveargued that the glueing did not involve actual glue -- that the fibresadhered to each other naturally if enough pressure was applied while theywere still fresh. Andalthough most have suggested that the pressure was applied by presses,some believe the sheets were hammered to make them bond. And, finally,although most think the papyrus root was sliced, some have suggestedthat it was peeled.

It should be noted that the core of the papyrus plant was somewhattriangular, so it is not certain whether the core was sliced in parallellines or triangularly, i.e.

    /\              /\   /--\            / /\  /----\    OR    / /\ \ /------\        / /__\_\/________\      /_/______\
Papyrus Plant

Papyrus sheets came in all sizes, depending on the size ofthe usable strips cut from the plant; the largest known areas much as two-thirds of a metre (say 25 inches) wide, butthe typical size was about half that, and occasionally onewill find items not much bigger than a business card (presumablymade of the leftovers of larger strips trimmed down to size).According to Pliny, these various sizes and qualities were givendistinct names (Augustan, Livian, amphitheatre, etc.), but it isnot clear that these distinctions were always observed.Various grades of papyrus were reportedly sold, although the details aresomewhat obscure and should not detain us.

The best papyrus could be sliced thin enough that the finalproduct was flexible and even translucent, like a heavy modernpaper, though it could not be folded as easily. (To be sure, notall papyrus was this good, although I have not seen any informationas to why; I have heard that Latin papyri have not lasted as wellas Greek papyri, but I have no explanation for this, either. E. G. Turnerreports that earlier papyrus was thinner and more paper-like, whilelate papyrus was thicker and more like cardboard. He blames this on poorermanufacturing, but I wonder -- given that we know papyrus went extinct,might the explanation not be that the best papyrus plants were used first,meaning that gradually only the coarser plants survived, with even thoseeventually going extinct?)

Papyrus is not paper, though. It is not as absorbent, and doesnot soak up ink as well. This means that papyrus should not besmoothed or polished; if it is, the ink will spread and puddle.The reasonpapyrus takes ink is that the surface is rough enough for the inkto have a lot of surface area to adhere to.

The plant itself Cyperus papyrus, shown at left, is a tall, slender stalktopped by a bushy growth of leaves. It grows in water, with theheight of the stalk depending on the species and conditions butgenerally quite tall. The tallest papyrus sheet now known is 53.5 cm. tall(a little more than twenty inches), although 40 cm. (16 inches) is much moretypical (that 53.5 cm. item was used for construction drawings).

It will tell you something about its importance thatHerodotos seems to have called the plant itself by the "book-name"βυβλος or even βιβλος.

Those wishing to see Pliny's description of papyrus in fullcan find an English translation in C. K. Barrett's widelyavailable The New Testament Background: Selected Documents;the description begins on page 23 of my 1966 edition. Much of theinformation is restated by in Sir Edmund Maunde Thompson,An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography.

On occasion, papyrus would be treated with cedar oil to guard itfrom moths. This would also improve the smell -- there are reports ofpeople burning papyrus as a sort of incense, and I suspect they wereusing the cedar-treated type -- but it had the side effect of turningthe material yellow.

What happens after the sheets were madedepends on the purpose for which thepapyrus is intended. Individual sheets of papyrus were ofcourse often sold for use in record-keeping, memoranda,writing training, etc. It is believed that some really coarsepapyrus was used exclusively for wrapping rather than writing.But we are most interested in books.When working with papyrus, the scroll was genuinely the moreconvenient form. The individual leaves were bound togetheredge to edge. The standardroll, again according to Pliny, was twenty sheets, (glued togetherwith a flour-based paste or perhaps sometimes sewn) and was called ascapus. This would mean a scroll about 5 metres long.Assuming the sheets were square, this would hold 4000-5000 words, or the equivalent ofsix to ten pages of a printed book. And this length really doesseem to have been standard; many texts of the Ptolemaic period arewritten with a lot of empty space, implying that they were beingpuffed up to fill a standard scroll.But there was no reason why such a roll could not belengthened or shortened; longer scrolls are certainlyknown -- Papyrus Harris I, British Museum 10053, is roughly 40metres long). This apparently was just an informal standard.It is perhaps illustrative that Juvenal once made a wisecrackabout a play so long that it had to be written on both the insideand outside of a standard scroll (and still didn't fit).

What's more, a scroll might be cut in half, or even quarters,horizontally, giving a scroll only about 15 cm. or even 8 cm. high(six inches, or three inches). The latter strikes me as difficultto use, because the columns were so short, but it would allow scrollsof the standard length (and hence diameter when rolled up)which still allowed for shorter texts.

In general, according to Pliny, the best sheets were placed on the outer edge, both because theytook more wear and tear and because they were the most certain to be writtenon; the last sheet or two, which were the worst, were the least likely tobe used. (Of course, putting the best scheets on the outsidealso made the scroll look better and more saleable.)The first sheet was a πρωτοκολλον,a word which gave rise to our protocol, although the wordεσχατοκολλιονfor the last sheet seems to have left no descendents in modern languages.

It was common although not universal to use a few extra cross-stripsof papyrus (sometimes re-used papyrus) to stiffen the outer edge of ascroll; such cross-strips are occasionally found at the inner end aswell, but this is much less common.

When papyrus sheets were bound together to make a scroll, there wasusually an overlap of a centimeter or so between the sheets to hold themtogether. Normally the sheets were pasted together in such a way that the lefthand sheet was placed above the right hand sheet, so that, as one was writing,the right hand sheet was below the left hand -- in effect, one wrote"downhill."

Scrolls have the advantage that they allowed a continuouscurve, which did not excessively stress any particular point ofthe papyrus. A papyrus codex had to have a single sharp fold (eitherin a single sheet or at the joining of two sheets). This naturallywas a very fragile point; even the nearly-intact P66 is much brokenat the spine, and to my knowledge, only one single-quire papyrus(P5) has portions of both the front and back sheets ofa folded leaf (and, in fact, I know of no proof that the two halves --which are not joined; they are part of the middle of a page -- are infact part of the same sheet, though it is generally assumed andseveral scholars have made rather extravagant assumptions on thisbasis). On the other hand, if a scroll got loose and unrolled itselfin the wrong way, it could cause quite a mess, and get damaged byfolding, in a way a codex could not.

Scrolls also allowed the reader to read continuously, showingas much of the document as one desired at any given time. This wasn'tvery helpful for ordinary reading, but it was a big advantage inreading music (as any musician who has to turn pages in the middleof a piece will tell you). Therefore scrolls continued to have aspecialized use in the Middle Ages to hold musical works too longto be written on a single sheet or on facing pages.

Scrolls were made to certain standards -- e.g. the horizontalstrips of each sheet were placed on the same side of the scroll,since only one side was likely to be written upon, and it was easierto write parallel to the strips. See the illustration at right,of the Rhind Papyrus, clearly showing lines between papyrus strips.(The Rhind Papyrus, acquired in 1858 by A. Henry Rhind, is afragmentary Egyptian document outlining certain mathematicaloperations. It was written by a scribe named Ahmose probablyin the Hyksos period, making it, in very round numbers, 3700years old; it is thought to be a copy of a document a fewhundred years older still, written during the period of theTwelfth Dynasty. This makes it one of the oldest mathematicaldocuments extant.)

It is widely stated that (with the exception ofopisthographs)scrolls were only written on one side, and that this was alwaysthe side where the strips ran horizontally. As we saw, Pliny stated thatpoorer quality material was often used on the back of a sheet, sinceit would not be written on; sometimes papyrus leaves were used forthis purpose instead of papyrus fibre,since the goal was not beauty but strength. While it seems tobe nearly always true that Greek papyri are one-sided, Egyptian papyri sometimesused both sides, and we are told that some papyri had their textswritten on the inside and a summary on the outside.

Most scrolls were set up so that the lines of writing paralleledthe longer dimension of the scroll -- that is, if === represents aline of text, a typical scroll would look something like this:

+---------------------------------------------+| ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  === || ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  === || ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  === || ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  ===  === |+---------------------------------------------+

Suetonius, however, says that pre-Imperial Roman legal scrolls wentthe other way, that is

+----------+| ===  === || ===  === || ===  === || ===  === || ===  === || ===  === || ===  === || ===  === |+----------+

If there are survivals of this format, though, my sources failto mention it. There are, among Egyptian papyri, a few (mostly fromthe Middle Kingdom) which mix the formats!

It is thought that early papyrus rolls were sewn together, butthis caused enough damage to the pages that bookmakers early learned toglue the sheets together. From ancient descriptions and illustrations,it seems that the scroll would would then normally be wrapped arounda rod, usually of wood (Hebrew Torah scrolls generally had two rods,at inner and outer ends), though few such rods survive. It was notunusual for a titulus, or title-slip, to be pasted to theoutside. Indeed, it hasbeen suggested that this explains the mystery of the Letter to theHebrews, which when originally filed had a slip on the outsidelisting its author or destination, but that this was lost early in its history(something which reportedly often happened to such slips). I will admitto thinking this unlikely; surely someone would remember what thescroll was, if it was respected enough to eventually become scripture!Other scrolls placed a summary at the beginning of a roll, so thatits contents could be easily learned without unrolling the whole thing.

In parchment codices, it was normal for hair side of a sheet to facehair side, and flesh side to face flesh. There was no similar rule forpapyrus. Some codices were set up so that the pages with horizontal stripsfaced those with horizontal strips and vertical face vertical (P66is an example of this), but others are set up so that the pages havehorizontal facing vertical (P75 is of this type).

One of the real problems with papyrus was its fragility. Dampdestroys it (there are a few reports of papyrus palimpsests, but they arevery rare -- how do you erase a manuscript without wetting it?), which iswhy papyrus manuscripts survive only in Egypt and a few other verydry locations. And while exposure to dry weather is not asquickly destructive, the papyrus does turn brittle in dry conditions.It would be almost impossible make, say, a volume that would be used forregular reference on papyrus; it just wouldn't last.

(Which makes it somewhat ironic that damp is often used to unroll ascroll which had stiffened in a rolled-up state. The typical approachwas to place the scroll in an enclosed space with damp blotting paperand perhaps a chemical to prevent mold from forming. It would be left inthis state overnight, then unrolled. If the roll was large, this mighthave to be repeated. Ideally it will then be placed between glass sheetsto preserve it in its unrolled state. Other techniques for unrolling includestatic electricity and heat, although this is better for making the sheetscease to adhere to each other than for actually unrolling them.)

Papyrus can also attract mold, and it was not unknown for rodentsto chew on it. Also, it seems to have attracted insects, particularlywhite ants. In other words, there were lots and lots of ways for apapyrus document to be destroyed.

On the other hand, if treated carefully, papyrus could last quitewell. Galen is said to have studied a papyrus that was 300 years old,and Turner reports a papyrus with writings from two different eras,one three centuries after the other. There are papyri from Egypt thatare more than 3000 years old, and although few ancient papyri are knownfrom Europe, there is one (burned) papyrus from Greece believed todate from the fifth century B.C.E.

It will be seen that papyrus was used as a writing material forat least three thousand years. It is nearly sure that the earliestChristian writings were on papyrus. As the church grew stronger andricher, the tendency was to write on the more durable parchment.Our last surviving papyrus Bible manuscripts are from about theeighth century. It is thought that manufacture of papyrus ceasedaround the tenth century.

This may not have been voluntary. Papyrus plants are now rare inEgypt -- E. Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography,p. 21, declares them extinct in that country, although stillfound further up the Nile. It is reasonable to assume that the heavy demand for writingmaterial caused the supply of the plant to dwindle. Presumably, giventime, the population would eventually be restored -- but with the banksof the Nile now having been so heavily developed, and the river itselfregulated, the environment is no longer what it was thousands off yearsago. A form of papyrus has been reintroduced to Egypt in 1872, according to RichardParkinson and Stephen Quirke, Papyrus, p. 9 (who say that theoriginal form was extinct by the time Napoleon's expedition wentlooking for it), but the reintroduced form came from a French botanicalgarden and may not be the same species as the original. Parkinson andQuirke, p. 8, show a map of where papyrus still flourishes; thenorthernmost point appears to be right around the Egypt/Sudan border.

Leo Deuel, in Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts& Records (p. 87), reports "[the] Church continued usingpapyrus for its records and bulls into the eleventh century. The lastdocument of this nature which bears a date is from the chancery of PopeVictor II, in 1057." (The last dated medieval papyrus document ofany kind is apparently an Arabic writing of 1087.)Ironically, after that, the material becameso obscure that people in Europe forgot what it was -- hence the factthat "paper" has such a similar name; the two were confused,with paper (which had no native name in Western languages) being calledby a name derived from "papyrus." It was not until Napoleon'sEgyptian expedition that Europe really rediscovered papyrus, and not until1877 that a large discovery in the Fayyum really made it clear that therewere vast riches to be discovered.

There is some uncertainty about how expensive papyrus was. Jac Janssenreports a source that gave the price of a roll -- presumably a standardroll of twenty sheets -- as two deben, which was the price of alarge basket or a small goat. Another source gives the price of a rollas one to two days' wages for a laborer -- not horrendously expensive,but not something you just went out and bought on a whim, either. My veryrough estimate is that a complete New Testament would have taken twentysuch scrolls, so to acquire a New Testament would have required five weeks'wages for a labourer, or a small flock of goats. Which in turn would meanthat a church of a few dozen members could probably afford the cost ofpapyrus for a complete New Testament, but the copying would be anothermatter....

In ancient Egyptian, papyrus was referred to either as meḥyt ortjufy; the latter, the ancestor of Coptic djoouf referringspecifically to papyrus while the former perhaps describes a wider class ofreeds or water plants. In Greek, παπυρος refers to papyrus as a food plant,while βυβλος tended to refer to the plant when it was used in making awriting material or other manufactured item such as a basket. The resultingwriting material itself was χαρτης, which obviously gave us Latin chartaand English charter.

The Jews of course continue to use scrolls to this day, although not onpapyrus. Jewish scrolls have two interesting peculiarities: Because Hebrewis written from right to left, the scrolls are rolled in the opposite directionfrom Greek or Latin scrolls, and they also tend to use wider columns thanpagan scrolls (sometimes as wide as 20 cm/8 inches).

Although the scroll was the usual format for "books"in ancient times, "letters" were another matter, at leastin Egypt. A letter could be expected to be folded up rather thanrolled. Given that much of the New Testament consists of "letters,"his perhaps has implications both for textual criticism(damage to the text would be most likely along the folds) andliterary criticism (letters would break at the folds, and perhapsbe reunited out of order or in unrelated blocks, which would helpexplain letters like 2 Corinthians with its abrupt changes in toneand topic).

Jeremiah tells us that deeds of sale were sealed, and we know thatsome Egyptian scrolls were also sealed after being rolled up. But theywere usually sealed with mud rather than wax, so it is likely that manyscrolls which once had such seals have lost them.

(It should incidentally be noted that, although the fibre of papyruswas used as a guide to writing, allowing scribes to maintain a straightline without ruling the papyrus, the fibres often did not run the entirelength of a sheet. This can be a problem when reconstructing a sheet fromfragments. If you see what appears to be a similar pattern of fibres ontwo sections, you cannot assume they align unless the two fragments actuallyfit together.)

Although most "papyri" are made of papyrus, it is reported thata few German writings were made on willow fibre, which could look likepapyrus. I know of no Biblical manuscripts of this type.


The history of parchment is among the most complicated of anywriting material. The historical explanation, both for the materialand for the the name, comes from Pliny (Natural Historyxiii.11), who quotes Varro to the effect that a King of Egypt(probably Ptolemy V) embargoed exports of papyrus to Pergamum(probably during the reign of Eumenes II). This was to prevent thelibrary of Pergamum from becoming a rival to the Alexandrian library.Eumenes's people then developed parchment as a writing material,and the term "parchment" is derived from the namePergamum.

The difficulty with this hypothesis is that skins were in use forbooks long before the nation of Pergamum even existed -- althougheven as late as the time of Jerome, papyrus was considered a bettermaterial for letters (my guess would be that this was becausepapyrus had a more porous surface, meaning that the ink would soakin and dry quickly, whereas ink on vellum wouldneed an extended drying period. Ink on particularly smooth parchment wasin fact likely to flake off, leaving no mark behind; this was reportedlya particular problem with Italian parchment, which was polished veryheavily.)

Parchment must really be considered the result of a long,gradual process. Leather has been used as a writing materialfor at least four thousand years; we have from Egypt the fragmentsof a leather roll thought to date to the sixth dynasty (c.2300 B.C.E.), with an apparent reference to leatheras a writing material from several centuries earlier -- all the wayback to the early fourth dynasty. Given that the handful of clay scribblesfrom the pre-dynastic period do not seem to involve an actual writingsystem, this would seem to imply that the use of skins dates back almostto the standardization of the Egyptian writing system. We have asubstantial leather roll from the time of Rameses II, and onewhich cannot be precisely dated but which is thought to go backto the Hyskos era several centuries before that. And, of course,there is the long tradition of writing Jewish scripture on leather.The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, are written primarily on leather.

But leather is not truly parchment. Leather is prepared bytanning, and is not a very good writing material; it is notvery flexible, it doesn't take ink very well, and it will usuallyhave hair and roots still attached.

Parchment is a very different material, requiring much moreelaborate preparation to make it smoother and more supple (the technicalterm is "tawing"). Ideallyone started with the skin of young (even unborn) animals. This skinwas first washed and cleansed of as much hair as possible. It wasthen soaked in lime, stretched on a frame, and scraped again. (Thescraping was a vital step: If any flesh at all remained on the skin,it would rot and cause the skin to stink terribly. It was done with aspecial knife, the Lunellarium.)It was then wetted, coated in chalk, "pounced", that is,rubbed with pumice (or, in Englandand other places where pumice was unavailable, in a bread with groundglass baked in to produce a pumice-like texture), and finallyallowed to dry while still in its frame. This process obviouslyrequired much more effort, and special materials, than makingleather, but the result is a writing material some still regardas the most attractive known to us.

Certainly it was the best writing material known to theancients. Smoother than leather or papyrus, it easily tookwriting on both sides, and the smoothness made all letterformseasy -- no worries about fighting the grain of the papyrus,e.g. And it was durable. Plus it was quite light in colour,making for good contrast between ink and background. And, becausethe surface was smooth, it could be painted. I have never seen aninstance of a true color illustration on papyrus (there may be a few,but I don't know of it), but many vellum manuscripts are decoratedwith miniatures. These rarely add to our knowledge of the text, ofcourse, but many are quite beautiful.

This does not mean that parchment was a perfect writingmaterial. It is denser than papyrus, making a volume heavierthan its papyrus equivalent. And the pages tend to curl -- particularlya problem when it is touched by a human hand; the heat of the hand, and theperspiration, cause it to curl even more. Plusit was always expensive. It is noteworthy that not one parchmentmanuscript was found in the Herculaneum or Pompeii excavations;every one of the surviving scrolls was of papyrus. As long aspapyrus was cheap, parchment was a special-purpose material.

 Parchment Seller
An illustration from a Latin codex (Copenhagen, Kongelige Bibliotek,MS. 4, 2o, folio 183v) shows a parchment-seller. In the backgroundis the rack on which a parchment is being stretched, as well as a scraper.

And, just as with papyrus, there are differences betweenthe sides: The flesh side is darker than the hair side, but ittakes ink somewhat better. The differences in tone caused scribesto arrange their quires so that the hair side of one sheet facedthe hair side of the next, and the flesh side faced the flesh side.It is reported that Greek manuscripts preferred to have the fleshside be the outer page of a quire, while Latin scribes tendedto arrange their quires with the hair side out.

(There are exceptions to the above rules; in the island of Britain,"insular" parchment seems to have been prepared differently;it was stiffer and had less difference between flesh and hair sides.This reduced the need to place an even number of leaves in a quire,because there was no requirement that hair face hair and flesh faceflesh.)

Another disadvantage of parchment, from our standpoint, isthat it was reusable. Or maybe it's an advantage. The verysmoothness and sturdiness which make parchment such a fine writingmaterial also make it possible to erase newink, and even old writing. Combine this with the expense of newparchment and you have ample reason for the creation ofpalimpsests -- rewrittendocuments. Many are the fine volumes which have been defacedin this way, with the under-writing barely legible if legibleat all. And yet, had they not been overwritten, the books mightnot have survived at all; who can tell?

To be sure, from the writer's standpoint, the ability to erase wasan advantage. Because erasures could be partial. A scribe working onpapyrus wrote, and having written, moved on. Corrections were simplycrossed out. But scribes working on parchment added a sponge and a scraperto their tools. Fresh ink could be blotted up with the sponge. Ink thathad dried could still be scraped off. This meant that parchment manuscriptswere often more attractive to the reader. One suspects it also encouragedillustrations, since one errant stroke did not have to ruin the wholedrawing.

One of the most interesting contemporary accounts of the preparationof parchment comes from the Old English codex known as the Exeter Book.This contains a series of riddles. Several pertain to the act of bookmaking.#26 is perhaps the most interesting. I won't give you the Old English version(which is incomprehensible to most moderns), but the following is based on acomparison of three modern English translations.

An enemy robbed me of life, stole my strength, then washed me in water anddrew me out again. He set me in the sun, where soon all my hair came off. Thenthe knife came across me, cutting away all my blemishes. Fingers folded me, anda bird's delight spread black droppings over me, back and forth, stopping toswallow droppings from a tree, then marking me more.

Then a man bound me with boards, and stretched skin around me, and coveredit with gold. A smith wound his wondrous work around me.

Now let this art, this crimson dye, and all this fine work celebratethe Ruler of nations everywhere, and proclaim against folly. If children ofmen will use me, they will be safer and surer of salvation, their heartsbolder and their minds wiser and more knowing. Friends and dear ones willbe truer, more virtuous, more wise, more faithful. Fortune and honor and gracewill come to them; kindness and mercy will surround them; they will be held tightin love.

What am I, this thing so useful to men? My name is renowned. I am bountifulto men, and holy.

The answer is a gospel book. Animals are killed, and their skins made intoparchment; they are written upon with a pen of a bird's quill (and, in some instances,a coating derived from eggs), with ink madefrom tree gum, then are bound, and the binding decorated; the book then goesto serve in a church or monastery.

We might add incidentally that "parchment" is not the native Englishname for the material; it derives from French. In Old English, the name wasbók-fel, book-skin. The French name, of course, came into use afterthe Norman Conquest.

Although any skin could be used for papyrus, some skins were clearly betterthan others. It is said that "Fat sheep made good mutton but bad parchment,"and of course the largest books required the skin of a full-sized cow -- which inturn tended to mean stiffer skin! And even if the skin was good, it really neededto be supplied to the parchment-maker promptly, before the flesh started todecay.

Without detailed (and sometimes destructive) tests, it is sometimes hard for investigators to tell what animal's skin was used to make parchment, but there are differences. For example, it is relatively easy to erase ink from calfskin, but very difficult to remove it from sheepskin.

Parchment also has an interesting characteristic not shared with paper or papyrus. Both paper and papyrus scorch if heated mildly, and burn if heated heavily enough or exposed to fire. Parchment is much less flammable, and even if exposed to high heat, its behavior may be different. Parchment, no matter how carefully prepared, will usually contain at least some fat -- and fat denatures in heat. It might melt and coat the manuscript. It might melt, run out, and burn, scorching only part of the parchment surface. It might melt in some places and not others, or the collagen fibers which give the parchment its strength might collapse, causing the manuscript to differentially contract. So a parchment exposed to fire may wrinkle badly. This can also cause the parchment to become brittle. It may also seal the volume shut. All of these effects can be seen in the burned volumes of the Cotton Library in the British Museum. To this day, there isn't much that can be done to restore such books -- the standard technique is to humidify the parchment as much as possible (using humid air, not water!), then press the skin to try to flatten it out, and hope the ink or illuminations don't flake off.


There is little that needs to be said about paper, except that early paper was made from rags, e.g. of linen, or sometimes cotton or hemp, rather than wood pulp, and that, in the west, it became popular as a writing material only around the twelfth century.

Rag paper apparently was invented in China around the beginning of the second century C.E.; Douglas C. McMurtrie, The Book: The Story of Printing & Bookmaking, third revised edition, Oxford, 1943, p. 61 reports that an official named Ts'ai Lun was given official recognition for the invention in 105 C.E. This early paper typically had a yellowish color.

Paper gradually spread westward, and was in widespread use in the Islamic world by about the ninth century. McMurtrie, p. 65, reports that "The oldest extant European paper document is a deed of Count Roger, of Sicily, written in Latin and Arabic and dated 1109."

The first European paper mill reportedly was opened around 1270 in Italy. The spread was slow; England didn't get its first mill for another two centuries. (And even that was a temporary foundation; although England never ceased to print cheap papers, for the next several centuries, English books were printed on higher-quality continental papers.) It is likely that many paper Biblical manuscripts were written on paper from Islamic countries. Acceptance of paper in the west did not come easily -- in the year 1221, the Emperor Frederick II explicitly declared that documents on paper were not legally binding (McMurtrie, p. 67). Fortunately, the Greek East was not so short-sighted, or we would probably have rather fewer New Testament manuscripts. It was not until the mid-fourteenth century that paper was generally accepted in the west. For a time, there were instances of books with mixed parchment and paper -- typically with parchment supplying the outermost leaf of a quire, and perhaps the inner leaf also. This was perhaps to take advantage of the greater durability of parchment.

Although it took less time to prepare paper than parchment, it initially wasn't fast -- there were many steps, and each sheet required some individual handling. (Little wonder that early paper had large sheet sizes, since a large sheet had much more paper but required only a little more work.) The rags from which it was made had to "rot" for four or five days, then were washed clean, pulverized, mixed into a slurry. This pre-paper material was pressed in a frame, laid out of felt, dried, pressed again, sized, and usually pressed some more (see Mark Bland, A Guide to Early Printed Books and Manuscripts, pp. 32-34).

Because the paper was made in metal wire frames, the pattern of wires from the very beginning made it possible to determine whether paper came from the same frame. Starting around 1270 (McMurtrie, pp. 71-72), it became the habit to put a second layer of wire above the bottom of the frame, leaving a signature mark -- a watermark -- on the paper. These can be used as an indication of date -- especially since the frames had to be periodically rebuilt, so the watermark would change very subtly every few years. Curiously, little seems to have been done by New Testament paleographers to take advantage of the information this offers (which can often be used to date a paper stock to within two or three years) -- some manuscript descriptions describe watermarks, but not in enough detail to be useful. Perhaps this is because the watermarks themselves (as opposed to the marks of the wire frames) were so widely used -- some of these watermarks became so standard that they came to refer to a particular type of paper rather than the individual mill which produced it -- e.g. "crown folio" became a particular paper format (Bland, p. 27). But I suspect that it is mostly because manuscripts on watermarked paper are minuscules, mostly late, and not taken very seriously.

After being removed from the frame, paper was typically placed on felt, pressed, and dried, after which it was sized -- that is, coated with size, a gelatin material that smoothed the surface. This made it possible to write on the paper without blotting. (Erick Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism, p. 35, compares writing on un-sized paper with trying to write with a fountain or roller pen on a paper napkin. The use of size can be important in detecting forgery, because if a modern forger uses old paper to try to avoid being caught by radiocarbon dating, the size may well have come off the paper, causing the ink to spread out more. Blotty, runny ink can thus be an indication of a forgery, although it's not proof because there were of course papers that weren't very well sized in the first place. ) For more about size, see the article on Chemistry.

Because paper had to be made in a frame that was manipulated by hand, sheets had a maximum size of about 0.7x0.5 meters (about 28 inches by 20 inches) -- smaller than the largest parchment sheets! (Bland, p. 32). The typical "pot" paper of the late Middle Ages was about .4x.3 meters, or about 16 inches by 12 inches.

Some additional detail can be found in the section on Books and Bookmaking.

Clay (and other rock-like materials)

It may seem odd to include clay as a writing material, sincethere are no clay New Testament manuscripts. But there areostraca and talismans, some of which are clay, and of course thereare many pre-New Testament writings found on clay: The cuneiformtexts of Babylonia and Sumeria, plus the ancient Greek documentsin Linear B. Since these give us our earliest linguistic evidencefor both Greek and the Semitic languages, it is hardly fairto ignore these documents.

Such of them as are left. It is not just papyrus that is destroyedby water. Properly baked clay is fairly permanent, but sun-dried clayis not. Which is probably why our earliest ostraca are believed to befrom the Egyptian Old Kingdom. It would be another thousand years beforethey appear in Greece, and even there, survival is spotty.Most of the Linear B tablets that survive from Pylos, forinstance, survived because they were caught in the fire that destroyedthe citadel. A number of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, initiallyperfectly legible, are now decaying because they were displayed inmuseums which did not maintain the proper humidity (in some cases,indeed, the curators left them encrusted with salts, which hastens theprocess of destruction). We think of clay as if it were a rock, andwe think of rocks as permanent -- but it really isn't so. Who can saywhat treasures on clay have been destroyed, possibly even by modernswho did not recognize what they were....

Fortunately for us, it is unlikely that many copies of the NewTestament were written on clay.

The other major disadvantage ofdocuments on clay was their weight. My very, very rough estimate isthat a complete New Testament would require about 650 tablets and wouldbe too heavy for an ordinary person to carry. Plus you'd need a way tokeep the tablets in order.

In addition to ostraca, there are a few ancient writings on limestone,mostly from Deir el-Medina in Egypt. Presumably limestone was adopted asa writing material because it was cheap, but some of these writings areon surfaces that were clearly carefully smoothed for writing. So maybelimestone became a tradition. And a limestone block would be harder tobreak than a pot. But probably even heavier....


As far as I know, there are no New Testament writings preserved on wax.Indeed, as far as I know, there are no ancient writings of any sort actuallypreserved on wax (we have a number of the tablets which held the wax, butthe wax itself, and the writing on it, is gone). We should however keep inmind the existence of wax tables, because there are indications that theywere often used to prototype portions of actual manuscripts -- especiallyillustrations in illuminated manuscripts, but I wouldn't be surprised if theywere used for commentary texts as well, because these sometimes requiredelaborate layouts.

A typical wax tablet was used for jotting quick notes. Apparently thestandard was a wooden tablet, lined with beeswax, written with a stylus(metal or bone), and tied with a leather thong so it could be carried aroundthe next.

Wax tablets did have a "security advantage": A message could bewritten in a multi-leaf tablet, and the two leaves bound together by cords,over which a seal was applied. This could be used in several ways: To maintainthe secrecy of the inner message, or in some cases to assure that the innermessage matched the outer.

Reportedly, the standard for waxed tablets was a black wax(so Maunde Thompson's An Introduction to Greek and Latin Paleography,p. 15), even though it would seem that this would make it harder to tellthe writing from the background. Quintillian in fact recommended the useof parchment (which was erasable) for those with weak eyes who could noteasily read scribbles on wax.

Styli eventually were created with a sharp end for writing and a broad,flat end for rubbing out any old messages in the wax. Thompson reports thatsome in fact had three blades: The point, for writing, the flat, for smoothing --and a third projection, at right angles to the shaft, for drawing lines onthe wax. (Although what good lines on wax would do is beyond me. Practice,maybe.)

Other Materials

Many other writing materials have been used at one time or another. Inthe east, silk was sometimes employed. Linen was used in Egypt, and probablyby the Romans as well, although it appears that linen was never woven forthe purpose of being a writing material; the cloth in all survivinglinen documents had originally been created for a different use.Potsherds were often used for shortscribbles -- they were standard for Greek elections, for instance. Leaves andbark have sometimes been employed -- early palm leaf books have survived insignificant numbers. But few trees in the Christian world grew suitable leaves;there seem to be no Christian documents of this type.

Wood was used in a variety of ways. We have a few examples ofnotes written on wood in ink, or scratched into wood; this may have been relativelycommon in some areas, but since wooden writings were not kept in libraries, and wouldgradually decay in damp, very little of this sort of thing survives, and none of itof Christian significance. In Egypt, wood tablets (usually of sycamore) werecoated with plaster and written on; this allowed correction or erasure byrubbing or, if that failed, by putting on another layer of plaster. But, as withpapyrus, wooden writings rarely survived except in the dry climate of Egypt.

For permanent records, metal was sometimes used, either cast (i.e. moltenmetal was poured into a mold of some sort) or engraved. Romans had lawswritten in lead, and even some lead writing tablets,and bronze was sometimes used for very permanent records such as treaties. Bronzewas also used by the Romans for the awards given to soldiers who had earned citizenship.It is possible that Paul carried such documentation, although obviously there is noBIblical evidence of this.

I know of only one piece of actual Judeo-Christian writing on metal, however:The famous Copper Scroll from Qumran (and even that did not contain a Biblicaltext). Although metal might seem like an ideal material for books, it in facthad several disadvantages. For starters, it's hard to write on. Inks normallysoak into the surface on which they are written, but not on copper! A copperbook, unless engraved (a slow process), would have to use a non-runny ink,and would have to be allowed much timeto dry. A metal scroll has an additional disadvantage: The metal will not roll well.Copper is a soft metal, and malleable, so it is possible to make a scroll fromit (a scroll of, say, iron, would be almost impossible). But the copper canbe bent, or otherwise damaged, and will not take well to repeated rollings andunrollings. And, over time, it oxidizes; the Qumran scroll, when found, could notbe unrolled, and had to be sliced apart to be read. (A procedure developed fordealing with burnt papyrus scrolls such as those from Herculaneum.)

Reeds, Quills, and other Writing Instruments

The tools for writing date back so far that the Egyptian heiroglyph forwriting seems to have been based on a pen-case tied to an ink palette (onehighly detailed carving of the symbol shows the palette as having two wellsfor, presumably, two different colors of ink).

The first pens we know about were made of rushes. They were thickand very difficult to use; rather than having a split tip to hold asignificant amount of ink, the tip was placed in water and then rubbedagainst a pigment, and a few letters would be written before it wentdry and the process had to be repeated. And they could only make strokesin certain directions -- a right hander holding a rush pen in a normalway could not make a stroke from lower right to upper left, and all strokesfrom right to left were difficult. It took practice to write withthem.

And Egyptians, based on illustrations,did not use a desk at this time; they just sat with the papyrus in their lapsand wrote on it. It must have been a very hard way to write, although reedpens did have minor advantages: they didn't have tobe repeatedly re-cut, and they wrote better on non-flat surfaces. And youdidn't have to press as hard on the writing material, meaning that thepapyrus could be thinner.

Small advantages indeed. It must have been a relief to get rid of those things.It appears that the earliest really practical writing utensils were made of reed(although even these may have used un-split reeds at first). In 3 John 13, weread of the author writing with a καλαμος,which is certainly a reed of some kind. If any New Testament manuscript was written with a rush pen, I have not heard of it.

At some stage, reeds started to give way to quills -- feathers of large birds.This usage is old enough that Old English called its writing implements "feðer,"fether.However, it was not a sudden and complete shift. Quills seem to have provided asmoother flow and probably sputtered less, but reeds could have their own advantages --it was easier to adjust the tip size, and one could also in some instances create abetter hand hold. It has been claimed that quills were not suitable for writing onpapyrus -- their stiff points would skip and/or scratch. Also, although feathers arecommon, those suitable for quills aren't, really -- supposedly the only high-qualityquills came from geese, swans, and ravens, and the best feathers were the third or fourth ofthe wing, plus the pinion. To print very large letters, a vulture quill was used; crow quils were used for very small print. A feather from a smaller bird was probably fairly useless. It also took a fair bit of skill and dexterity to cut a quill -- and, indeed, quills had to be cut different ways for different styles of script; it was cut at an angle to write a Gothic hand, while italic hands and others used a rounded tip. Reeds were thus cheaper and perhaps more forgiving.

There is strong evidence that reeds and quills were used simultaneouslyin Anglo-Saxon England -- one of the riddles in the Exeter Book describes writing abook with a quill, while another describes a reed. The following poetic translationis based on one by R. K. Gordon (I've improved the meter -- at least to my ears --at slight cost to the accuracy of the rendering):

Beside the shore and near the strand,
Where the sea beats on the land,
I dwelt there, rooted in my place,
And few there were of human race
Who saw my lonely home abode,
Where ev'ry morn the brown wave flowed,
And in its wat'ry clasp me caught,
And little had I any thought
That it should ever be decreed
That by the bench where men drank mead,
I, mouthless once, should speak and sing
Both soon and late. A wondrous thing
To mind which cannot understand
How point of knife and firm right hand
A man's mind coupled with the blade
Cut and pressed me, and so made
Me give a message without fear
To you with no one else to hear,
So that no other man e'er may
Tell far and wide the words we say.

Few modern references even mention pens in this period, but they did exist, madeof bronze or bone. It is likely that pens were used primarily for parchment, which hada smooth surface; a hard nib might have damaged papyrus. It is suggested that, as arule of thumb, papyri were written with reeds, parchments with quills or, sometimes,manufactured pens.

A few other writing implements came into existence over the years. Pencils probably need little explanation. But you may also find references to "crayons." This is a doubly deceptive description -- the term "crayon" had not been coined in the manuscript era, and modern wax crayons didn't exist either. But wax might sometimes be used to bind a color, or some sticky material combined with a pigment to create a waxy inscription similar to that of a modern crayon.


The ideal ink (the name itself being a French word, from enque; the Old Englishword was blaec) has three characteristics: Permanence, clarity of color, and strongattachment to the page. These three attributes were rarely found together in ancienttimes.

For a strong black, the ideal substance was lampblack, which is almost pure carbon.By itself, unfortunately, it did not adhere to the page very well, resulting in writing that could flake off. Some scribes nonethelessused a lampblack ink, similar to modern "india ink," which is carbon mixedwith a gum or glue.

The other basis for ink was galls -- nutgalls or oak gall, for instance. These aresometimes called metallic inks -- a description that would drive a modernprinter crazy. (Metallic inks today look like metals!) Frequently the gall was combinedwith a "vitriol" -- in modern terms, a metal sulfate. Vitriols were often madewith sulphuric acid -- hence a high acidity. The standard formula in England in the late middle ages was five parts gall, three of iron sulfate (FeSO4•xH2O), and two of gum. In Spain, the proportion was three parts gall to two parts iron sulfate to one part gum, and wine was used as the base liquid for writing on parchment, although water was used for ink used on paper. Some vinegar might also be added to improve the flow.

Gall-based ink usually was brown rather than black (modern inks based on metalsulfates and tannic and gallic acid are very dark black, and permanent, supposedlygetting darker as they age, but I gatherthe formulation has changed). Apart from this, it had advantagesand disadvantages. It was more acidic than lampblack-based inks -- which meant that itadhered to the parchment better (since the acid etched the surface slightly), but if theacidity was too great, it could damage the surface. (True metallic inks, such as the goldused on some purple manuscripts, were even more acidic and caused worse damage.)

Lampblack-based inks, assuming the ink stayed on the page, are far more permanent;inks written with this sort of ink (including the Qumran scrolls) usually still lookblack to this day. Gall-based inks tend to fade -- Codex Vaticanus, for instance, waswritten with a gall-based ink, and faded enough that it was famously retraced. CodexBezae is another well-known manuscript written with gall ink.

It is reported that the ink of squid (cuttlefish) was also used on occasion. I knowof no manuscripts which have been verified as using squid ink as a source of black, anddo not know what the characteristics of such ink are.

Ink was often kept in an inkhorn, which in turn required a special hole in a desk tohold it.

For more on inks and pigments, see the article on Chemistry.

Other Tools Used by Scribes

Obviously pen and ink and writing material were the bare minimum equipment for a scribe. But most used many more implements. An illustration in the Latin Codex Amiatinus shows a picture of Ezra with (among other tools) a pair of dividers or calipers, a stylus for scoring lines, and an unknown triangular tool perhaps used for some sort of illustrations. Other scribes' kits included knives or scrapers for removing ink, as well as a knife (which might or might not be the same sort at the scraping knife) for putting new tips on their reeds or quills. Since these knives needed to be sharp, scribes often had whetstones to sharpen them. Those working on an illuminated manuscript would want a wax tablet to practice their illustrations. Most would need a straight edge for scoring lines. Sponges might be used to erase errors in newly-written text. The scribe might also have a pumice block for smoothing parchment, although ideally this would have been done by those responsible for preparing the parchment. Those doing geometric drawing would need a compass (which might also be used in ruling the manuscript). Some authorities believe scribes also used scissors, although I know of no absolute proof of this.

Technical Terms Used in Describing Writing

The list below shows some of the technical terms used in describing the act of writing.