The Means of Ancient Communication: Part 2

As written forms of language slowly developed the materials upon which the text was applied also changed to become more user friendly. Early writing materials consisted of stone, metal sheets, wooden boards, wax tablets and ostraca. All of these materials are rigid and rather primitive in kind. As the need for better communication and recording occurred so too developed better forms of writing materials.

Clay Tablets

Clay tablets are probably the invention of the Sumerians of southern Babylonia. The use of soft clay tablets was popular right up until the Christian Era. Use of clay tablets became widespread and was the general means of written communication throughout Mesopotamia and the entire ancient East.

The system of use involved two parts: The tablet proper, that was fashioned as a ‘letter’ and formed the inner core of the communication. Shrouding the inner tablet was a folded clay ‘envelope’ that completely enclosed the inner tablet. The message to be sent was first written on the smaller, inner tablet, while the clay was soft using a thin, sharpened tool to inscribe wedge-shaped cuneiform letters that comprised the text. This tablet was then fired to harden it and make the message permanent.

It was then wrapped in a thin sheet of clay that was folded around the main message like a modern envelope. This was inscribed with the name of the recipient, the contents of the inner tablet and the name (and possibly the seal) of the author.

These tablets have been excavated by the thousand, from archaeological sites all over the East. There are at least one million tablets held and displayed in various museums throughout the world.

The envelope system provided privacy to the writer and if the seal had not been broken, the recipient would know that no one had read his mail.


Another of the vegetable writing materials is papyrus. Apparently invented in Egypt, where long papyrus reeds grow along the banks of the Nile River, especially in the Nile Delta region. This versatile plant was also used as a fuel, food, medicine, for clothing and for rope manufacture.

The thick reeds where peeled of their outer layer and then cut into flat strips. The strips were laid out on boards in a criss-cross weaving pattern and gently beaten with a wooden mallet. The result, after drying, was a very strong, flat writing surface that could be rolled up. Not only was it a versatile writing material it was also very light.

Large sheets could be manufactured and after polishing each piece with pumice stone, it was ready for the scribe. The longer the text of the message then the longer the papyrus page could be made. Papyri many metres long have been discovered. The average length of a religious or business roll is about ten metres although some are known to have been up to 40 metres long.

For storage they were rolled to form scrolls. For practical purposes a long scroll was somewhat inconvenient. To be read, a scroll had to be unrolled with one hand while the other hand then re-rolled it causing only a small portion to be seen at any one time. Because of this awkwardness, scroll length became standardised.

Standard sizes meant that long works, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, needed 24 scrolls to accommodate them resulting in the division into 24 books. Similarly, the books of the bible have been shaped by prescribed scroll sizes. Long books such as Samuel and Kings needed to be divided into two parts while short books, like the 12 minor prophets could be combined onto one single scroll.

Writing was achieved by using pen and ink. The pen was a slit reed and the ink was a mixture of lamp soot with gum and water. This combination was highly durable as evidenced by the survival of thousands of fragments of written text. The papyri itself was the weakness of the system. The ink had tremendous longevity but fire, dampness and insects easily destroyed the organic papyrus.

Archaeologists have found documents written on papyrus, rolled up, tied with string and sealed with a clay stamp on which the mark of the authority was impressed. More than often the clay seal is found but the valuable document that it held has deteriorated and been lost.


The chief rival of Egyptian papyri as a writing material was a surface made from animal skins known as parchment. Writing on animal skins was known to be widespread in the Assyrian period. The oldest known animal skin scroll is said to be that of the Egyptian 12th Dynasty.

Parchment is basically leather. Both begin using the same treatment process, with the two just having a different ending. Skins are washed, soaked, cleaned of hair and residual flesh and carefully smoothed out. To create leather the skins are then treated with tannin, hence the term, tanning. For parchment, the skins are not tanned but dressed with alum and dusted off with fine chalk. The thinner hides of goats and sheep are preferably used for parchment over the thicker hides of bulls. Young animals produced the finest parchment and this is often referred to as vellum.

The dating of the Hebrew manuscript on parchment found at Muraba’at, near the Dead Sea, was attested to 750 BC. Parchment appears to have become the normal writing material from this time on for permanent records while administrative matters were still recorded on papyrus.

Parchment is much more durable than papyrus and can withstand hard wear and usage. Papyrus rolls were easily torn or damaged by fire (remember that reading at night was with a naked flame) and many had to be rewritten or copied.

Unlike papyrus, parchment had a reverse side that was not so suitable for writing. It was the hair or wool side that had been scrapped but could never be made as smooth nor as white as the face side. For this reason the good surface became the inner face of the roll and the outer was used only as decorative surface of a scroll.

Recording the Past

Almost all ancient classical literature was written on parchment. However, the development of writing materials through ancient times is as fascinating as it is exhaustive. Millions of pieces of ancient communication have helped to record the past. With hundreds of archaeological excavations operating today it is certain that millions more will be discovered and re-read.

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