Contents: Introduction * Papyrus * Parchment * Paper * Clay
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.
The earliest relatively complete description of how papyrus was prepared comes from Pliny's Natural History (xiii.11f.): "Papyrus [the writing material] is made from the papyrus plant by dividing it with a needle into thin [strips], being careful to make them as wide as possible. The best quality material comes from the center of the [stalk]," with lesser grades coming from nearer to the edges. The strips are placed upon 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." These cross-braced sheets are then "pressed together, and dried in the 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. Nonetheless the basic description is certainly true: The stalks were sliced, set side by side, braced by having another layer of strips glued across them perpendicularly, pressed, and dried.
Papyrus sheets came in all sizes, depending on the size of the usable strips cut from the plant; the largest known are as much as two-thirds of a metre (say 25 inches) wide, but the typical size was about half that, and occasionally one will find items not much bigger than a business card (presumably made of the leftovers of larger strips trimmed down to size).
The best papyrus could be sliced thin enough that the final product was flexible and even translucent, like a heavy modern paper, though it could not be folded as easily.
The plant itself, shown at left, is a tall, slender stalk topped by a bushy growth of leaves. It grows in water, with the height of the stalk depending on the species and conditions but generally quite tall.
What happens after the sheets were made depends on the purpose for which the papyrus is intended. Individual sheets of papyrus were of course often sold for use in record-keeping, memoranda, writing training, etc. It is believed that some really coarse papyrus was used exclusively for wrapping rather than writing. But we are most interested in books. When working with papyrus, the scroll was genuinely the more convenient form. The individual leaves were bound together edge to edge (Pliny tells us that the best leaves were always placed on the outside of the scroll, but it is not clear whether this was because they were stronger or because it made the scroll look better and more saleable). The standard roll, again according to Pliny, was 20 sheets, which would mean a scroll about 5 metres long (though longer scrolls are certainly known -- Papyrus Harris I, British Museum 10053, is roughly 40 metres long).
Scrolls also have the advantage that they allowed a continuous curve, which did not excessively stress any particular point of the papyrus. A papyrus codex had to have a single sharp fold (either in a single sheet or at the joining of two sheets). This naturally was a very fragile point; even the nearly-intact P66 is much broken at the spine, and to my knowledge, only one single-sheet papyrus (P5) has portions of both the front and back sheets of a 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 in fact part of the same sheet, though it is generally assumed and several scholars have made rather extravagant assumptions on this basis).
Scrolls were made to certain standards -- e.g. the horizontal strips 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 easier to write in the same direction. 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 a fragmentary Egyptian document outlining certain mathematical operations. It was written by a scribe named Ahmose probably in the Hyksos period, making it, in very round numbers, 3700 years old; it is thought to be a copy of a document a few hundred years older still, written during the period of the Twelfth Dynasty. This makes it one of the oldest mathematical documents extant.)
It is widely stated that (with the exception of opisthographs) scrolls were only written on one side, and that this was always the side where the strips ran horizontally. While this seems to be nearly always true of Greek papyri, Egyptian papyri sometimes used both sides, and we are told that some papyri had their texts written on the inside and a summary on the outside.
Most scrolls were set up so that the lines of writing paralleled the longer dimension of the scroll -- that is, if === represents a line of text, a typical scroll would look something like this:
+---------------------------------------------+ | === === === === === === === === === | | === === === === === === === === === | | === === === === === === === === === | | === === === === === === === === === | +---------------------------------------------+
Suetonius, however, says that pre-Imperial Roman legal scrolls went the other way, that is
+----------+ | === === | | === === | | === === | | === === | | === === | | === === | | === === | | === === | +----------+
If there are survivals of this format, though, my sources fail to mention it.
It is thought that early papyrus rolls were sewn together, but this caused enough damage to the pages that bookmakers early learned to glue the sheets together. From ancient descriptions and illustrations, it seems that the scroll would would then normally be wrapped around a rod, usually of wood (Hebrew Torah scrolls generally had two rods, at inner and outer ends), though few such rods survive. It was not unusual for a titulus, or title-slip, to be pasted to the outside.
One of the real problems with papyrus was its fragility. Damp destroys it (there are few if any papyrus palimpsests), which is why papyrus manuscripts survive only in Egypt and a few other very dry locations. And while exposure to dry conditions is not as quickly destructive, the papyrus does turn brittle in dry conditions. It would be almost impossible make a standard reference volume, say, on papyrus; it just wouldn't last.
It will be seen that papyrus was used as a writing material for at least three thousand years. It is nearly sure that the earliest Christian writings were on papyrus. As the church grew stronger and richer, the tendency was to write on the more durable parchment. Our last surviving papyrus Bible manuscripts are from about the eighth century. It is thought that manufacture of papyrus ceased around the tenth century.
Leo Deuel, in Testaments of Time: The Search for Lost Manuscripts & Records (p. 87), reports "[the] Church continued using papyrus for its records and bulls into the eleventh century. The last document of this nature which bears a date is from the chancery of Pope Victory II, in 1057."
The history of parchment is among the most complicated of any writing material. The historical explanation, both for the material and for the the name, comes from Pliny (Natural History xiii.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 the library 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 name Pergamum.
The difficulty with this theory is that skins were in use for books long before the nation of Pergamum even existed.
Parchment must really be considered the result of a long, gradual process. Leather has been used as a writing material for at least four thousand years; we have from Egypt the fragments of a leather roll thought to date to the sixth dynasty (c. 2300 B.C.E.), with an apparent reference to leather as a writing material from several centuries earlier. We have a substantial leather roll from the time of Rameses II, and one which cannot be precisely dated but which is thought to go back to the Hyskos era several centuries before that.
But leather is not truly parchment. Leather is prepared by tanning, and is not a very good writing material; it is not very flexible, it doesn't take ink very well, and it will usually have hair and roots still attached.
Parchment is a very different material, requiring much more elaborate preparation to make it smoother and more supple. Ideally one started with the skin of young (even unborn) animals. This skin was first washed and cleansed of as much hair as possible. It was then soaked in lime, stretched on a frame, and scraped again. (The scraping 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 then wetted, coated in chalk, rubbed with pumice, and finally allowed to dry while still in its frame. This process obviously required much more effort, and special materials, than making leather, but the result is a writing material some still regard as the most attractive known to us.
Certainly it was the best writing material known to the ancients. Smoother than leather or papyrus, it easily took writing on both sides, and the smoothness made all letterforms easy -- 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.
This does not mean that parchment was a perfect writing material. It is denser than papyrus, making a volume heavier than its papyrus equivalent. And the pages tend to curl. Plus it was always expensive.
And, just as with papyrus, there are differences between the sides: The flesh side is darker than the hair side, but it takes ink somewhat better. The differences in tone caused scribes to arrange their quires so that the hair side of one sheet faced the hair side of the next, and the flesh side faced the flesh side. It is reported that Greek manuscripts preferred to have the flesh side be the outer page of a quire, while Latin manuscripts tended to arrange their quires with the hair side out.
Another disadvantage of parchment, from our standpoint, is that it was reusable. Or maybe it's an advantage. The very smoothness and sturdiness which make parchment such a fine writing material also make it possible to erase new ink, and even old writing. Combine this with the expense of new parchment and you have ample reason for the creation of palimpsests -- rewritten documents. Many are the fine volumes which have been defaced in this way, with the under-writing barely legible if legible at all. And yet, had they not been overwritten, the books might not have survived at all; who can tell?
There is little that needs to be said about paper, except that early paper was made from rags, e.g. of linen, rather than wood pulp, and that it became popular as a writing material only around the twelfth century. Some additional detail can be found in the section on Books and Bookmaking.
It may seem odd to include clay as a writing material, since there are no clay New Testament manuscripts. But there are ostraca and talismans, some of which are clay, and of course there are many pre-New Testament writings found on clay: The cuneiform texts of Babylonia and Sumeria, plus the ancient Greek documents in Linear B. Since these give us our earliest linguistic evidence for both Greek and the Semitic languages, it is hardly fair to ignore these documents.
Such of them as are left. It is not just papyrus that is destroyed by water. Properly baked clay is fairly permanent, but sun-dried clay is not. Most of the Linear B tablets that survive from Pylos, for instance, survived because they were caught in the fire that destroyed the citadel. A number of cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, initially perfectly legible, are now decaying because they were displayed in museums which did not maintain the proper humidity (in some cases, indeed, they left them encrusted with salts, which hastens the process of destruction). We think of clay as if it were a rock, and we think of rocks as permanent -- but it really isn't so. Who can say what treasures on clay have been destroyed, possibly even by moderns who did not recognize what they were....