The invention of writing and in particular of alphabetic writing marked a milestone in cultural development. It provided humanity with a new means of communication that literally inscribed in stone the spoken word. Communication could now span both space and time. Space, because writing could be sent from one place to another. Time, because writing could preserve the words for generations to come.
Since the art of writing was discovered, nearly every form of writing material has been used. Some were intended to ensure permanence while others were simple and inexpensive but temporary. From the wax notepad of the schoolboy to the grand inscriptions on monuments, almost everything we know about antiquity is derived from writings such as those written on animals, vegetables and minerals.
Stone was mainly used for writing on permanent monuments and public buildings. The writing on stone usually requires the use of hammer and chisel. The most comfortable, accurate and hence productive manner of carving stone inscriptions is to hold the chisel in one hand and hit it with the hammer held in the other hand. Although this sounds like too simple an explanation, one must consider that as most people are right handed then there would be a tendency to cut the letters from right to left. Therefore, we find that the flow of ancient Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic run from right to left. Stone is one of the oldest forms of writing material.
Sheets of metal were rarely used for writing or are rarely found. For one, they were expensive to manufacture and secondly, the metal was often re-smelted for use as weapons in times of war, so few sheets remain. Royal houses sometimes used silver or gold and examples of writing on gold has been excavated from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem. More commonly, bronze tablets and copper sheets were used to provide semi-permanence and could be stored more easily than cumbersome rock. Archaeologists have discovered row upon row of bronze tablets from ancient Roman archives that contain details about treaties and decrees.
Soldiers, honourably discharged from serving in the Roman Army, were given a small bronze tablet with their right as citizen recorded on it. These were known as diplomas and we derive modern academic graduation from this source.
The use of wood as a writing medium was strictly confined to temporary purposes and not many such tablets have survived through antiquity, as the climate in most countries is not conducive to their preservation. Apart from some well-preserved palm wood found in Buddhist libraries in the East, the only good source of timber tablets is in the dry sands of Egypt, where the flooding Nile cannot reach.
In antiquity, wooden boards were used for displaying public announcements. The Romans called them albums. They were whitened boards that could be sign written and when the message became out of date the board could easily be whitewashed and rewritten. The qualities of slaves would be written on such boards and they would be made to stand under them while being paraded for sale.
An extremely temporary method of writing was to scratch the record onto wax tablets. These were thin wooden boards covered with a fine coating of beeswax. The boards could have small holes at one end that permitted a ring to be inserted allowing many sheets to form a flip book. The Latin name for this was codex and has become common in referring to any group of bound pages.
Wax pads were often used as notebooks. At Pompeii, excavations have shown that even contracts as important as banking or loans were recorded on wax tablets. This may have been a quick, temporary method prior to a more permanent one, much like a secretary might make shorthand notes before typing them up.
School students used the wax tablet as a writing notepad. Once the information was learned the tablet could be smoothed clean for reuse. The wax was written on using a sharp stylus, whereby we get the term literary style. A stylus was sharp at one end and broad at the other for smoothing out the wax when required. Pads of two or three leaves were called diptychs or triptychs.
These are broken sherds of pottery that have writing scratched onto them. Being basically useless, potsherds were discarded. However, as they were made of fired clay they were very hard and almost indestructible. Sherds were a good source of writing material but it is certain that they were never intended to be a lasting, permanent record. What was probably meant to be only a provisional material has, for the archaeologist, survived well in all sites in nearly all countries and is a valuable artefact.
Commonly found in Egypt, as tax receipts, there have been tens of thousands located all over the world.
Writing Materials Developed
The ingenuity of humans to record their successes, others’ failures and even the most mundane of business exchanges can all be found in the archaeological record. Ancient writing was on primitive materials but as writing developed so too technology followed with fired clay tablets, papyrus and parchment.