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Early Writing

HRC Clay Tablet 1. Agricultural account tablet in Sumerian referring to flocks and herds, probably the property of one of the great temples of Southern Babylonia. About 2400 BCE.

Babylonian Clay Cone. Cuneiform inscription in Sumerian, recording the building of the Temple E-ninnu, the shrine of the patron god of the city of Ningirsu, and its dedication by Gudea, governor of Lagash. About 2350 BCE.

Detail of HRC Clay Tablet 5. Economic tablet, containing records of groups of animals. First year of Su-Su'en (1980 BCE).

Egyptian Temple at Abydos. Photo by P. Sebah. Photography Collection. 1889.

A detail from the Palace of Ramses IV at Thebes. From Monuments de l'Egypte et de la Nubie by Jean-François Champollion, 1845.

Atmoo writing the name of Ramses on the fruit of the Persea. From The History of the Art of Writing by Henry Smith Williams, 1901.

Clay Tablets

In the beginning, all writing was a form of accounting. As people developed agriculture, settled into towns, and began trading goods, they needed a way of keeping records of their exchanges. The first account records were small, marked clay tokens that represented quantities of various products, whether numbers of sheep, bags of grain, or loaves of bread. These counters date back 9000 years BCE to pre-historic Mesopotamia. The word "history," which stems from the Greek word for "knowing," means the study of the written or recorded past. Pre-history, therefore, signifies the period before writing or recording. Consequently, the Historical Period began around 3000 BCE when the Sumerians made the leap to writing. These early written characters were pictograms‚essentially pictures of the words or their sounds. Today, we often play with rebus puzzles that mimic these early writing styles. The phrase "I owe you" written as "IOU" is a common example of a rebus. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and modern Chinese characters are other examples of pictographic script. Later, the Sumerians' picture-writing evolved into cuneiform, which means "wedge writing" in Latin. Cuneiform was written with a wedge-shaped stylus, much like the ones used on today's hand-held computers, onto damp clay tablets, which were then baked until hard. The Sumerians had enormous libraries of clay tablets containing their laws, business transactions, and literature.

Papyrus fragment. 2nd century BCE. Greek. Highly interesting document concerning taxes in connection with beer and soda.

Papyrus. 3rd to 2nd century BCE. Greek. Two complete extracts of marriage contracts.

Detail of the papyrus manuscript above.

Stylus and ink pot. From Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, 1897.

Papyrus Scrolls

Egyptians began writing around the same time as the Sumerians. The name of their written characters, hieroglyphs, comes from the Greek word for "sacred carving." Compared to the 26 letters of the English alphabet, there are over 700 different hieroglyph signs. Ancient Egyptians wrote on many of the same surfaces that the Sumerians did: clay, stone, bone, metal, and leather. They wrote most often, however, with reed pens on papyrus scrolls. The papyrus plant is a tall reed that grows in the marshy areas around the Nile River. The fibers from the center of its triangular stalk were separated into long, narrow strips, which were laid crosswise to each other and beaten together to form a uniform sheet. New papyrus sheets are thin, flexible, and translucent. The individual sheets were then glued together into long scrolls. The longest Egyptian scroll ever found measures over 133 feet, which is only 18 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty, though most scrolls were much shorter. Long books were often divided into several scrolls. Papyrus continued to be the most popular writing surface for centuries; both the Greeks and the Romans used it.

St. John the Baptist with a scroll. Belleville, Book of Hours. HRC MS. NO. 8. Mid 15th century, France. Written in Latin and French. Page 223v.

St. Luke with Scroll and Codex. Book of Hours. HRC MS. NO. 5. Mid 15th century, France. Written in Latin and French. Page 20r. St. Luke is the patron saint of bookbinders. His symbol is the ox or calf.


Sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, Romans began to sew groups of folded papyrus sheets together and bind them between two wooden covers into our now familiar book form. Because of its wooden covers, they called this type of book a codex, a word that initially meant "a piece of wood" in Latin. This form has many advantages over the scroll; it is easier to hold and flip back and forth between sections, and it can be carried around and stored more easily. Scrolling through text, however, has made its reappearance on computer screens.

While papyrus was the most common writing surface, it also had several problematic qualities. For example, not only did it become brittle with age, it also rapidly deteriorated under the humid conditions that existed outside of the desert. In addition, most papyrus only grew in the Nile region of Egypt, which gave Egyptians almost complete control over this resource. In fact, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder recounted the story of how King Ptolemy of Egypt was so jealous of the King of Pergamum's library that he forbade all export of papyrus to that city. With this embargo, the people of Pergamum, in Asia Minor, had to write all of their texts on fine animal skins. Cow, sheep, and goat skins, that are used for writing are called parchment, which comes from the Latin word pergamena, after the city of Pergamum. While the Romans certainly believed this account, modern historians now believe it to be only a charming legend.

Skins had long been used for writing in places that did not have access to papyrus. The Greeks and Romans often used parchment for important documents, such as wills, but papyrus scrolls were still preferred and thought more refined. Parchment, however, replaced papyrus as the primary writing surface in the Western world by the 4th century CE. Besides lasting longer under various conditions, parchment could be written on both sides, and the ink could be erased on parchment by scraping. An erased parchment, which is then reused, is called a palimpsest. Flexible parchment and vellum were particularly well suited for the codex, and they remained the primary writing surfaces long after paper was brought from China.

Whether cuneiform tablet, Egyptian papyrus, Greek scroll, or Roman codex, all writing was copied by scribes, who etched, inked, or carved every word and letter one stroke at a time.

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