clay tablets to leaf, skin and paper

Writing surfaces have been many and varied over the centuries. From clay and wax to wood and plant materials.

Clay tablets

Clay tablet image

Clay tablet

Clay tablets would have been shaped to size and then inscribed using a stylus. Clay tablets were usually baked to make them permanent and this helped to preserve them so that many have survived until today. The Sumerians used clay tablets for administrative purposes.

Wax tablets

Wax tablet and stylus image

Wax tablet and stylus

Wax tablets were used by the Greeks and Romans much as we use notebooks today. The wax was set into wooden diptychs and, like the clay tablets, were written on using a stylus. The stylus was pointed at one end for making the marks and the other end was used to smooth the wax and erase the previous writing. Wax tablets were not designed to be permanent but a few have survived to this day.


Papyrus detail image

Papyrus detail showing overlapping fibres

Papyrus is made from the papyrus plant and is still used today. The stems are cut to length and then sliced into thin strips down the length into wafers. The wafers are laid side-by-side overlapping each other and another layer placed on top at right-angles and then hammered and pressed tightly together. The juices of the plant bind them together and once dried they can be used for writing on. Papyrus was once expensive because of the way it was produced.

Brushes were used for writing on papyrus as any sharpened nib, such as feather quills, would have torn the surface of the writing sheet.

Papyrus was usually rolled up to store it and only one side was generally used as it was constantly handled in the rolling and unrolling.

The word papyrus gives us the modern word for paper.

Parchment and vellum

Stretching parchment image

Stretching parchment

Parchment and vellum is produced from the hides of animals. Parchment from the skin of sheep and vellum from the skin of a calf. The hide is first steeped in lime and the hair and flesh scraped from the surface. It is then stretched tight over a frame, covered with chalk – which removes excess fats – and allowed to dry. Once preparation is complete it is removed from the frame and cut to size. Both sides can be used as a writing surface. If you look carefully at old manuscripts you can still see the tiny holes where the hair follicles were on one side of the sheet.

Parchment is highly durable and many ancient manuscripts have survived.

For large bibles it would not have been unusual to need around three hundred sheepskins for a single volume. This was extremely expensive and cost only reduced once paper was widely made.


Paper making image

Dried paper being removed from the wire mesh

The Chinese first started making paper from linen fibres around 2000 years ago. The process was a well guarded secret and only began to be known outside China about 700 hundred years later.

Linen was left to rot and then cleaned, bleached and pulped and mixed with water and wheat flour paste. The sludge was scooped onto wire mesh frames  and allowed to drain leaving an even layer of interlocking fibres. This was then peeled off, pressed and dried.

Paper can be made from almost any fibrous material, such as plant, tree bark, rags, flax, cotton and sugar cane residues.

Modern paper is made from wood pulp and the process is much the same as the ancient Chinese method, although much of our paper is now machine-made.

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