History is not only the study of past events, particularly in human affairs, but it is most uniquely, also a continuous, typically chronological, record of such events. Anything before the invention of writing systems, therefore, is considered prehistory.
Writing was long thought to have been invented in ancient Sumer (in Mesopotamia) and spread over the world from there via a process of ‘cultural diffusion’ . The discovery of the scripts of ancient Mesoamerica, far distant from Middle Eastern sources, proved that writing had been invented independently in at least four different times and places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Mesoamerica. Of these original writing systems, Egyptian and Sumerian are the oldest known (Regulski, 2016).
This is not intended to be an in-depth look at all aspects of writing, alphabets, language and so on, but rather it is a brief guide to how some of the major societies set about recording their history.
Writing materials There is no certainty as to which material was in most common use for the purposes of writing at the start of the early writing systems. In all ages it has been customary to engrave on stone or metal, or some other durable material, to produce a permanent record (McClintock and Strong, 1885. 990–997).
The common materials of writing were the tablet and the roll, the former probably having a Chaldean origin in Mesopotamia, the latter an Egyptian. The tablets of the Chaldeans are small pieces of clay, somewhat crudely shaped into a form resembling a pillow, and thickly inscribed with cuneiform characters (see below). Similar use has been seen in hollow cylinders, or prisms of six or eight sides, formed of fine terracotta, sometimes glazed, on which the characters were traced with a small stylus, in some specimens so minutely as to require the aid of a magnifying-glass (McClintock and Strong, 1885. 990–997).
The origins of writing appear during the start of the pottery-phase of the Neolithic, when clay tokens were used to record specific amounts of livestock or commodities (Hallo and Simpson, 1971, 25). These tokens were initially impressed on the surface of round clay envelopes and then stored in them (Hallo and Simpson, 1971, 25). The tokens were progressively replaced by flat clay tablets, on which signs were recorded by pressing a triangular stylus into soft clay tablets, creating characteristic wedge-shaped marks. The clay tablets were then baked to harden them and permanently preserve the marks. Actual writing is first recorded in Uruk, at the end of the 4th millennium BC, and soon after in various parts of the Near-East (Hallo and Simpson, 1971, 25).
Cuneiform is one of the earliest known forms of written expression along with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Cuneiform is a logo-syllabic script used to write several languages of the Ancient Near East. The script was actively used from the early Bronze Age until the 2nd-century AD. The last known cuneiform inscription, an astronomical text, was written in 75 AD in Assyria (Geller, 1997, 43-95). The script is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions (Latin: cuneus) which form its signs. Cuneiform was originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and continued in use with their successor cultures, such as the Babylonians.
The clay tablet shown right records the ‘Hymn to Marduk’ who became an important god in the early second millennium BC, when Babylon (under its most famous king, Hammurabi) became the capital city of a large Babylonian state. Marduk’s importance in the pantheon of gods rose with the fame of the city of Babylon, so that in later periods he was the supreme deity. The hymn celebrates Marduk as the ruler of the universe. It was written in the late 1st millennium BC, when the antique writing system was no longer used for communication or administration purposes.
Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians impressed their cuneiform on clay tablets, they also wrote on parchment from the 6th-century BC onward. The subject of parchment is discussed later.
Heiroglyphs Around 3,000 BC the appearance of distinctive figures forming a distinctive pictorial script marked the beginning of ancient Egyptian civilization. Known as hieroglyphs from the Greek for ‘sacred carvings’ each character of the ancient Egyptian writing system was more than a sophisticated form of picture-writing. Each picture/glyph served one of three functions:
To represent the image of a thing or action.
To stand for a sound or the sounds of one to as many as three syllables, or
To clarify the precise meaning of adjoining glyphs.
Writing hieroglyphs, and writing in general, was very important in maintaining the Egyptian kingdom. Literacy, however, was concentrated among an educated elite who could both read and write (such as the Pharaoh, the nobility and priests) and scribes who served the pharaoh, the temples, and the military authorities. Requiring some artistic skill only people from certain backgrounds were thus allowed to train as scribes. The net result was only 1% of Egypt’s population could write. The hieroglyph system was always difficult to learn, but in later centuries was purposely made even more so thereby preserving the scribes’ status. Others used a simplified version more suited to everyday handwriting: first the hieratic script, and later the demotic .
The knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs had been lost completely by the Middle Ages. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone by French troops in 1799, during Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, led to the breakthrough in decipherment. The Rosetta Stone is uniquely inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt, in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty on behalf of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The top and middle texts are in ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts respectively, while the bottom is in ancient Greek. The decree has only minor differences between the three versions, making the Rosetta Stone key to deciphering the Egyptian scripts. Knowing what the Greek text said allowed several 19th-century scholars to conduct falsifiable studies in translation. Eventually, Jean-François Champollion made the complete decipherment by the 1820s.
Papyrus While wooden tablets are found pictured on monuments, the material in most common use in ancient Egypt, even from very ancient times, was the papyrus, having recorded use as far back as 3,000 BC (Gascolgne, 2001). Papyrus’ use was not limited to Egypt but used by many other Mediterranean societies for recording history long before paper was first used in China. In fact, the word ‘paper’ is etymologically derived from papyrus, which is, in turn, Ancient Greek for the Cyperus papyrus, a tall, aquatic plant of the sedge family native to the Nile valley and found chiefly in Lower Egypt. Thought to be common in ancient times, today the Egyptian subspecies, C. papyrus hadidii, only flourishes in certain areas.
Papyrus is made from the stem of the papyrus plant. First the outer rind is removed, and then the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips of about 40 cm (16 in) long. The strips are placed side by side on a hard surface with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle. While still moist, the two layers are hammered together, mashing them into a single sheet, which is then dried under pressure. After drying, the sheet was polished with a rounded object, possibly a stone, seashell, or piece of round hardwood.
Sheets could be cut to fit the obligatory size or glued together to create a longer roll. A wooden stick would be attached to the last sheet in a roll thereby making it easier to handle. To form the long strip scrolls required, several sheets were joined together such that all the horizontal fibres parallel with the roll’s length were on one side and all the vertical fibres on the other. Normally, texts were first written on the recto, the lines following the fibres, parallel to the long edges of the scroll. The ancient Egyptians used reed pens to write with ink on papyrus.
Pen and ink The pen is the most common form of writing implement using a hard tip to apply ink to a surface. The earliest versions were made by slicing a suitable nib point from the end of a thin, hollow natural material. The Egyptian reed pens could retain a small reservoir of ink by capillary action . However, these ink reservoirs were relatively small, requiring the pen to be periodically dipped back into an external inkwell for replenishing.
While many ancient cultures around the world independently discovered and formulated inks for the purposes of writing and drawing, we know the ancient Egyptians were using ink on papyrus from at least the 26th-century BC (Tallet, 2012, 147–68). Our knowledge of these inks, their recipes and how they were made comes from archaeological analysis of surviving exemplars or from descriptions within a written text itself.
Ancient Egyptian scribes used black ink for writing the main body of text, while red ink was often employed to highlight headings, instructions, keywords, the names of gods, and so forth. The black and red inks were made from organic and inorganic material, primarily soot and ochre, mixed with a binder, typically gum Arabic, and suspended in water, and at times perhaps in other fluids like animal glue, vegetable oil, and vinegar (Christiansen et al., 2020, 27825–27835). The binding agent keeps carbon particles in suspension and adhered to the papyrus. The mixture was subsequently dried and pressed into pellets, which would be carried around by the scribe. A liquid ink could be prepared by mixing the pellet with a bit of water, when the scribe was ready to write (Christiansen et al., 2020, 27825–27835).
Usefully for us, carbon inks tend not to fade over time even when bleached or when in sunlight. Likewise, being chemically stable, carbon inks do not threaten papyrus’, or latter paper's, inherent strength. Despite these benefits, carbon ink is not ideal for permanence and ease of preservation. It tends to smudge in humid environments and can be washed off surfaces. The best method of preserving a document written in carbon ink is to store it in a dry environment (Barrow 1972).
Ancient Greece and Rome
Like the Sumerians and Babylonians, the Mycenaean Greeks also inscribed their records into clay tablets. The Greeks, however, did not routinely bake the clay. Much of the Linear B corpus from Minoan Crete that survives to us was accidentally preserved by a catastrophic fire which hard-baked those tablets.
Papyrii As with the ancient Egyptians, the scrolls we typically associate with the Greeks and Romans were also made of papyrus. The example shown right, housed in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a Roman papyrus written in Greek and dated to the early 3rd-century AD. The papyrus contains a letter written by Heraclides to his brother Petechois. It is essentially a shopping list of items including poultry, bread, lupines, chickpeas, kidney beans and fenugreek at various prices that Heraclides wants Petechois to bring him. Such documents provide important evidence for the level of literacy in the Roman world and offer an insight into the everyday lives of ordinary people.
Wooden tablets The numerous wooden tablets recovered from the excavations at the Roman fort of Vindolanda are another rich source of information on the lives of Romans and Romano-Britons living on the Roman frontier near Hadrian’s Wall.
Written in carbon-based ink, which the Romans called altramentum, on fragments of thin, post-card sized wooden leaf-tablets, they date to the 1st- and 2nd-centuries AD (roughly contemporary with Hadrian’s Wall). Although similar records on papyrus were known from elsewhere in the Roman Empire, wooden tablets with ink text had not been recovered until 1973, when archaeologist Robin Birley, his attention being drawn by student excavator Keith Liddell, discovered some at the site of Vindolanda.
Although vary by author, the handwriting uses a cursive script considered to be the forerunner of joined up writing. The cursive writing style differs greatly from the Latin capitals typically seen on inscriptions. The documents record official military matters as well as personal messages to and from members of the garrison of Vindolanda, their families, and their slaves. Highlights of the tablets include an invitation to a birthday party held in about AD 100, which is perhaps the oldest surviving document written in Latin by a woman, Sulpicia Lepidina.
The holes and notches often present on these fragile tablets (see above) are for connecting several pieces together and for sealing a tablet prior to its dispatch through the official postal system or cursus publicus.
Wax tablets Both the Greeks and Romans also used tablets (Latin tabulae; sing. tabula) made of wood and covered with a layer of beeswax . These were often linked loosely to a cover tablet, as a ‘double-leaved’ diptych or sometimes a ‘triple-leafed’ triptych.
Writing on the wax surface was performed with a pointed instrument known as a stylus. A straight-edged spatula-like end, opposite the stylus tip, would be used to erase mistakes or make corrections by rubbing the wax surface smooth again. The modern expression of ‘a clean slate’ equates to the Latin expression ‘tabula rasa’ .
Wax tablets were used prolifically for a variety of purposes, from taking down students’ or secretaries’ notes to recording business accounts. Early forms of shorthand were used too. While these ‘reusable notebooks’ were widely employed, information requiring a more permanent record was probably transferred to papyrus scrolls for long-term storage. Regardless, wax tablets were the re-usable and portable writing surface in antiquity and continued in use throughout the Middle Ages.
With the collapse of the Roman authority in Western Europe (post AD 476), the focus for literary development became largely confined to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. Latin, never one of the primary literary languages, rapidly declined in importance (except within the Roman Catholic Church). What survived and flourished was primarily written in Greek and Persian.
The rise of Islam in the 7th-century, however, led to the rapid rise of Arabic as a major literary language in the region. Arabic and Persian quickly began to overshadow Greek’s role as a language of scholarship, and the primary script became Arabic in nature. In turn the Arabic script heavily influenced the development of the cursive scripts of Greek, the Slavic languages, Latin, and other languages. The Arabic language also served to spread the Hindu–Arabic numeral system throughout Europe.
Parchment Parchment is a writing material made from specially prepared untanned skins of animals, particularly goat, sheep or cow, that has been scraped or dried under tension. It has been used as a writing medium for over two millennia predating paper and possibly even papyrus.
Vellum Vellum may be distinguished from parchment by being of a finer quality and made from calfskin as opposed to that from other animals. The word is borrowed from Old French vélin calfskin’, from the Latin word vitulinum ‘made from calf’. Vellum is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation and the quality of the skin. The manufacture involves the cleaning, bleaching, stretching on a frame (a ‘herse’), and scraping of the skin with a crescent-shaped knife called a ‘lunarium’ or ‘lunellum’ (from the Latin luna, ‘moon’). To create tension, scraping is alternated with wetting and drying. A final finish may be achieved by abrading the surface with pumice and treating with a preparation of lime or chalk to make it accept writing or printing ink. Vellum has been used to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. Because of its hard-wearing properties UK Acts of Parliament are still printed on vellum for archival purposes.
The scribe’s preferred writing tool of this period was the quill pen. They were the standard writing implement in Europe through to the 18th and 19th centuries. Even today quill pens are still used in various contexts, such as calligraphy and formal settings such as major bank transactions. The most common quills were taken from the wings of geese or ravens, although the feathers of swans and peacocks were sometimes favoured for prestige.
During the Mediæval period, in the early 12th-century, iron gall (common ink) inks came to prominence. They were used for centuries and were widely thought to be the best type of ink, but iron gall ink is corrosive and damages paper over time (Waters, 1940). Items containing this ink can become brittle and the writing fades to brown. The rate at which it fades, however, is based on several factors, such as proportions of ink ingredients, the amount of ink deposited on the paper, and paper composition (Barrow, 1972, 16). Furthermore, manuscripts written in iron gall inks need to be stored in a stable environment because any fluctuation in relative humidity increases the rate that various acids form in the material the ink was used on. The resulting chemical reactions can physically weaken the paper, causing brittleness (Porck and Teygeler, 2000).
And finally, no guide to how history was recorded can be complete without mentioning one of the most fundamental additions to the scribe’s panoply: paper.
The first papermaking process was documented in China during the Eastern Han period (AD 25 to AD 220). The Han dynasty Chinese court official Cai Lun (c. AD 50-62 to AD 121) is traditionally credited as the inventor of a method of papermaking using rags and other plant fibres in AD 105 (Barrett, 2008). The discovery of specimens bearing written Chinese characters in 2006 at Fangmatan in north-east China's Gansu Province suggests that paper was in use by the ancient Chinese military more than 100 years before Cai, in 8 BC, and possibly much earlier as the map fragment found at the Fangmatan tomb site dates from the early 2nd-century BC (Buisseret, 1998, 12). It would appear that Cai Lun's contribution was probably adding tree bark and hemp ends to the papermaking recipe and standardising said recipe, and improving the overall papermaking process.
Even today Chinese characters are traditionally written with a brush, which is perceived as lending itself to a graceful, flowing stroke. A brush differs from a pen in that instead of a rigid nib, the brush is tipped with soft bristles which are gently swept across the paper with just enough pressure to allow ink to wick onto the surface. Traditionally, brushes have been loaded with ink by dipping the bristles into an external pool of ink on an inkstone, analogous to a traditional dip pen with an inkwell .
Chinese inks may go back as far as three or maybe four millennia to the Chinese Neolithic Period (Woods and Woods, 2000, 51–52), but the earliest evidence for Chinese inks dates to around 256 BC at the end of the Warring States period. These were carbon inks produced from soot and animal glue. Yet it is to the Chinese that the invention of India ink first goes; the name deriving from where the materials were sourced through trade with India (Smith, 1992, 23). The traditional Chinese method of making the ink was to grind a mixture of hide glue, carbon black, lampblack, and bone black pigment with a pestle and mortar, then pouring it into a ceramic dish to dry (Gottsegen, 2006, 30). To use the dry mixture, a wet brush would be applied until it liquified (Gottsegen, 2006, 30).
During the 8th-century, Chinese papermaking spread to the Islamic world, where pulp mills and paper mills were used for papermaking and money making. By the 11th-century, papermaking was brought to Europe. By the 13th-century, the papermaking process had been refined and industrialised with paper mills in Spain powered by waterwheels. In later Mediæval Europe, especially the 15th-century, parchment was largely replaced by paper for most uses except most luxury manuscripts. New techniques in paper milling made paper much cheaper than parchment, the former now being made of textile rags and of very high quality. With the advent of printing in the later 15th-century, the demands of printers far exceeded the supply of animal skins for parchment. Later European improvements to the papermaking process came in the 19th-century with the invention of wood pulp-based papers. With their introduction the cost of writing material began a steady decline and, apart from a brief flirtation with writing slates, paper has remained the mainstay for recording history.
A final word
Throughout history the nature of writing had been constantly evolving, particularly with the development of new technologies over the centuries. The pen, the printing press, the computer and the mobile phone are all technological developments that have altered what is written, and the medium through which the written word is produced. Particularly with the advent of digital technologies, namely the computer and the mobile phone, characters can be formed by the press of a button, rather than making a physical motion with the hand. The impact of technology on the recording of history cannot be understated, and the sheer volume of information potentially available to future historians is mind-blowing. One wonders what, in all the trillions of stored bits and bytes, will survive or be deemed worthy of study.
Barrett, T.H., (2008),’ The Woman Who Discovered Printing’, London: Yale University Press.
Barrow, W.J. (1972), ‘Manuscripts and Documents: Their Deterioration and Restoration’, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Buisseret, D., (1998), ‘Envisaging the City’, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Christiansen, T.; Cotte, M.; de Nolf, W.; Mouro, E.; Reyes-Herrera, J.; de Meyer, S.; Vanmeert, F.; Salvadó, N.; Gonzalez, V.; Lindelof, P.E.; Mortensen, K.; Ryholt, K.; Janssens, K.; Larsen, S., (2020), ‘Insights into the composition of ancient Egyptian red and black inks on papyri achieved by synchrotron-based microanalyses’, PNAS, 117 (45), available online (accessed May 6th, 2022).
Gascolgne, A.B., (2001), ‘History Of Writing Materials’, available online (accessed May 13th, 2022).
Geller, M., (1997), ‘The Last Wedge’, Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie 87 (1), pp. 43-95, available online (accessed October 24th, 2021).
Gottsegen, M.D., (2006), ’The Painter's Handbook: A Complete Reference’, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.
Hallo, W. and Simpson, W., (1971), ‘The Ancient Near East’, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.McClintock, J., and Strong, J., (1885), ’Cyclopedia of Biblical, theological, and ecclesiastical literature: Supplement’, New York: Harper.
Porck H. J. and Teygeler, R., (2000), Preservation Science Survey, Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.
Regulski, I., (2016), ‘The Origins and Early Development of Writing in Egypt’, available on-line (accessed October 24th, 2021).
Smith, J.A., (1992), ‘The Pen and Ink Book: Materials and Techniques for Today's Artist’, New York: Watson-Guptill Publications.
Tallet, P., (2012), ‘Ayn Sukhna and Wadi el-Jarf: Two newly discovered pharaonic harbours on the Suez Gulf’ (PDF), British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan. 18.
Waters, C.E., (1940), Inks, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, United States Government Printing Office.
Woods, Michael and Woods, Mary, (2000), ‘Ancient Communication: Form Grunts to Graffiti’, Minneapolis: Runestone Press.
1. Cultural diffusion was conceptualized by Leo Frobenius in his 1897/98 publication ‘Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis’ as the spread of cultural ideas, styles, religions, technologies, languages between individuals, whether within a single culture or from one culture to another.
2. Hieratic is a cursive writing system used in ancient Egypt and the principal script used to write Egyptian from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC. Demotic script was derived from northern forms of hieratic used in the Nile Delta, and precedes Coptic, a family of closely related dialects descended from the Ancient Egyptian language. Historically it was spoken by the Copts of Egypt, starting from the 3rd-century AD in Roman Egypt.
3. They are known as ‘capillary-action dip pens’.
4. The Greeks probably started using the folding pair of wax tablets, along with the leather scroll in the mid-8th century BC.
5. Tabula rasa is often translated as ‘clean slate’ in English (more literally ‘erased slate’). The phrase comes from tabula, a wax-covered tablet used for notes, which was blanked (rasa) by heating the wax and then smoothing it. Essentially it means a ‘blank slate’, the state of a writing slate before written on with chalk. In the Roman and English sense both may be renewed repeatedly, by melting the wax of the tablet or by erasing the chalk on the slate.
6. Some companies now make ‘brush pens’ that resemble fountain pens in that they have an internal ink reservoir built into the handle which can be refilled with preloaded cartridges or a bottle-fill converter.