An Overview of Ancient Writing Surfaces

Papyrus

Papyrus was the most common writing material of the ancient world. The stalk of the papyrus plant was cut into thin strips, which were laid in two perpendicular sheets: one with the plant’s fibers running horizontally (generally the front side, or recto) and the other with the fibers running vertically (the back, or verso). The sheets were stuck together by the natural juices of the plant. Sheets could be joined to form rolls or stacked to form codices. (The codex, a “proto-form” of the book, started rising in popularity in the second century and eventually came to replace the roll.) Ink was made of soot and gum arabic in water. A reed pen was used for Greek and Latin, a brush for Egyptian.

Parchment

To make parchment, the skins of animals (mainly calves, sheep, and goats) were cleaned and the hair was scraped off; they were then stretched out to dry, and treated with chalk and alum.

Wax Tablets

Wax tablets were pieces of wood hollowed out and filled with beeswax. They were written on with a stylus made of wood, bone, or bronze. One end of it was pointed, the other flat for smoothing out mistakes. Tablets could also be strung together to form codices. They were generally used for everyday activities like bookkeeping.

Wooden Boards

Wooden boards, sometimes covered with white paint, were used for various purposes in different places. In Athens, they were used to publish official texts. In Egypt, they were used as labels for packages and mummies.

Ostraca

An ostracon is a piece of stone or pottery. Here are several types:

-Athenian black glaze, written on by scratching through the glaze

-Egyptian flat limestone, written on with ink

-potsherds written on with pen/brush and ink

Ostraca were less appealing than papyrus because they were heavy, couldn’t be bound together or easily archived, and contained only short texts. They were, however, free. In Athens, ostraca were used as ballots; Many in Greek and demotic are tax receipts. They are most important for Coptic texts: most of those that survive are letters.

For more information, see chapter entitled “Writing Materials in the Ancient World” by Adam Bülow-Jacobsen in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology

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