Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Support Materials


In the ancient world, before the arrival of paper, the support materials for writing were extremely varied. Some of them were elaborately prepared and thus costly, others instead were makeshift materials transformed into support material when first needed for writing. Support materials therefore varied greatly depending on the geographic area, the historical period, the purpose of the text to be written, and other factors.

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The most common support material, produced in Egypt and then exported in all of the Mediterranean area. It was used very early (end of 4th Millennium BC) and was then effectively propagated during the expansion of the Roman Empire. Its use began to decline only in the Byzantine Era, due to the economic crisis, the fall of the Western Empire (476 AD), the Arab conquest of Egypt (641 AD) and the spread of other types of support materials (parchment, paper). All the same, in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, papyrus was still regularly arriving in Gaul, in the 9th century, it was used in Ravenna in the Byzantine Exarchate and in the 10th century the Roman Curia continued using it (the latest document is a Bull issued by Pope Victor in 1057). In these last centuries, however, papyrus came more from Sicily (in particular from Syracuse) than from Egypt.

The stem of the papyrus has a triangular form and can grow as high as 3-4 meters; it grew in the Nile Valley, in Central Africa, in Mesopotamia, in the Jordan Valley and in Sicily.

Pliny described the production process for sheets of papyrus (Nat. Hist. XIII 74-81):
"praeparatur ex eo charta diuiso acu in praetenues sed quam latissimas philyras; principatus medio, atque inde scissurae ordine. [...] 77. texitus omnis madente tabula Nilii aqua: turbidus liquor uim glutinis praebet. in rectum primo supina tabulae schida adlinitur. longitudine papyri quae potuit esse resegminibus utrimque amputatis, trauersa postea crates peragit. premitur ergo prelis, et siccantur sole plagulae atque inter se iunguntur, proximarum semper bonitatis deminutione ad deterrimas. numquam plures scapo quam uicenae. [...] 81. scabritia leuigatur dente conchaue".

However, his description is approximate and inexact: the glue is not formed from the Nile water, but by the carbohydrates in the pulp of the plant itself. The steps for the production of sheets of papyrus (kóllÄ“ma) are:

1. the stem is cut;

2. the stem is cut into pieces, the external layer of the stem is removed so that the fibrous pulp is uncovered;

3. the pulp is cut in strips;

4. a surface is formed of slightly-overlapping strips;

5. a second layer, perpendicular to the first, is formed;

6. the sheet is compacted with a roller or press;

7. the sheet is trimmed and squared by cutting off irregularities.

In this way, one side had vertical fibers and the other horizontal: this was the only side written on originally (rolls written transuersa charta have been found only in documentary texts of the Royal Chancellery in the Ptolemaic period). The sheets obtained were of different dimensions, from a maximum of 40-45 cm (Pharaonic period) to an intermediate 30 cm (Graeco-Roman Period). Even the width varied, from 35-40 cm during the Pharaonic period to 18 cm in the Graeco-Roman Period.

The single sheets obtained in this way were then glued together to make rolls (chártÄ“s, bìblos or tómos); they were glued together in such a way that the fibers lay in a single direction (on one side, all vertical, on the other, all horizontal). Only the first sheet (prōtókollon) was placed with the fibers perpendicular to the rest of the roll. Nothing was written on this sheet, which served as a grip to unroll the papyrus, as well as a protection, since horizontal fibers were more resistant. A standard roll of papyrus was composed by about 20 sheets of paper and was approximately 3.50 m long, even if rolls composed of 50, 60 and even 160 sheets, for a length of about 28-29 m, were produced (considered stock from which pieces could be cut as needed).

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Text with a public function (funeral, monumental, historical, magic, even advertising) written on stone was extremely common in all of the Mediterranean area. Even though Greek and Latin epigraphy are the best known – the Roman epigraphs are numbered in the tens of thousands, and it is probable that only 10% of the originals are extant – the writings of the ancient civilizations on the southern and eastern sides of the Mediterranean also produced very abundant epigraphic material. This material was of differing types depending on what was available: marble, granite, sandstone, limestone, porphyry, and simple local stone. It was not unusual that the material mirrored the social or economic status of the buyer commissioning the epigraph, in particular for stones of particular color, hardness or rarity. To be of a good quality, writing on stone required good technical knowledge and ability. The surface was carefully prepared, as for the best texts on parchment or papyrus, and this smoothing was followed in some cases by a preliminary design of the written text or by the drawing of lines to write on, etc. The text incised onto stone (sometimes only scratched), was in some cases painted in order to make the content stand out from the stone (for example indexing in red in the Roman world, but in some cases a true naturalistic painting for Egyptian hieroglyphics, or the use of symbolic or "magic" colors). In some cases the writing on stone was obtained by inlaying different lithic materials (polychrome and polymaterial are constants in Near Eastern art) or by applying metallic letters, in some cases golden (e.g. in the monument inscriptions of Imperial Rome).

Animal skins

These were usually of sheep, goat or calf. The skin was obviously treated and transformed, sometimes into leather, sometimes into parchment.


Once again Pliny describes how to work leather (Nat. Hist. XIII 113), as do Theophrastus and Dioscorides. All three authors agree on the procedure:

1. remove the fur or wool;

2.remove any meat or fat still attached, and soak in lime or urine (both have abrasive properties);

3. wash and tan with the use of tannin (plant extract), which is an excellent fixer, impedes putrefaction and blocks decomposition, while maintaining the softness of the skin.

The leather is smooth on one side (the one which had the fur), while the other side, spongy and fibrous, cannot be written on.

Leather was used for writing in Egypt in the 6th Dynasty (2300-2200 BC), and outside of Egypt it was frequently used in the Near East (Jewish) and in Asia Minor, on the Iranian Plateau (Medes, Persians), and in Greece (cf. Herodotus Hist. V).


The process for producing parchment can be found in some Coptic Egyptian instruction books and from others in Latin from the 8th and 9th centuries:

1.– 2. as for leather;
3. the skin was stretched across a wooden framework and dried; both sides were scraped with a     knife, to make it as thin as possible;
4. the skin was smoothed down with pumice,
5. then bleached with chalk or even painted with purpurin.

This support material can be used on both sides. According to Pliny, parchment was developed in Pergamon, during the reign of Eumenes II (221-160 BC), as a response to the Egyptian papyrus export ban that the Ptolemaic sovereign had proclaimed in order to boycott the idea of a large library competing with that of Alexandria in Egypt. The information is incorrect (leaving aside the question of Egyptian economic suicide), since parchment was already in use before Eumenes II. The earliest parchment in fact dates from 195 BC and comes from Dura-Europos (Syria), but since it is of excellent quality, which implies a certain familiarity with production practices, the invention of parchment probably dates to about the 3rd century BC. In any event, the Pergamons have the honor of having produced and widely distributed this new writing material, later adopted with interest by the Romans. The Greeks simply called it diphthéra and the term pergamÄ“nón was only used in the Byzantine era.

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Tablets were made of different materials and there are thousands preserved in various languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Persian, Linear A and B, Egyptian, Greek).

Tablets were modeled from wet clay to form a flat square or rectangular surface of fairly different dimensions (from 2 x 2 to 30 x 30 cm per side; from <1 to 2 cm thick). Writing obviously had to be done while the surface of the tablet was still wet, with a metal or bone (stylus) tip; the tablet was then dried in the sun or, if of great importance, baked in the oven and then stored. In some cases the baking was accidentally caused by fires.

Stone tablets were also used, made from slabs of limestone squared, leveled, smoothed and beveled at the corners, which were then written on with ink. There are tablets of this kind from the Pharaonic (Hieratic, Demotic) until the Roman Age. Tablets of this kind with Greek text are very rare, with the exception of some epigraphs (public texts on non-moveable support material).

Tablets in wood were, instead, very numerous, square or rectangular boards, of various dimensions (from a few cm to half a meter, from 2-3 mm to 1.5 cm thick) and type (plaster, plain or wax). The Egyptians wrote directly on the wooden surface with ink, and did not use wax tables. The wax tablets were made from a board with the side edges and center hollowed, into which wax darkened with lampblack (more rarely with cinnabar or ochre) was poured. Once the wax hardened, the text was incised with a metal, bone or ivory stylus. Tablets appeared in the Near East in the 2nd millennium BC (Uluburun relict, 14th century). Greece knew of them through contact with Asia Minor and they are already cited in the Iliad (Bellerophon’s famous sÄ“mata lygra en pìnaki ptyktō). As for the Romans, Livy I 24 cites the ancient treatise of the city with Alba (tabula ceraue), while Dionysius of Halicarnassus describes the 12 tablets (5th century BC) with the term déltoi. The wax tablet remained in use for several centuries, even until the 19th century in France (market price lists).


Ceramic recipients, especially in the Etruscan and Greek worlds, often had inscriptions of various types, but in any case different from those of the ostraca and from the labels on jars. Ostraca in fact were written only after the recipient was broken, and there is thus no relationship between the text and the support material. Jar labels are more properly inscriptions related to the content of the ceramic recipient, and they are applied after the clay is baked, once the recipient is filled. Here, instead, inscriptions were painted on the vase before baking, and included the signature of the author, a dedication, the key of the scene depicted, etc. It was not unusual to leave a space free for text during the decoration of a vase.


Fragments of ceramic vases used, once the vase was broken, as support material for writing (with incision or ink): these are very common because ceramic was the most common waste material of the ancient world and the dumps – but even the streets and squares – of ancient cities had an abundance of broken ceramic pieces. In Egypt the oldest ones date to the 3rd millennium BC and continue until 1000 AD, in the East the oldest examples date from 6th century BC and continue until the Byzantine era. The first Greek examples date from the 6th century as well (introduction of ostracism).

Limestone shards

Similar to ostraka, they are fairly flat fragments of limestone: very frequent in Egypt from the Old Kingdom up to and including the Arabic Age, there are instead very few with Greek texts and none with Latin texts.

Metal leaves

Very thin sheets of metal, on which writing was incised. Very malleable metals were used, both precious (gold, silver) and less so (bronze, copper and especially lead). The use of metal leaves in Mesopotamia dates from the 3rd millennium BC, in Egypt from the 2nd millennium, and these early products were almost always in gold or silver. The oldest metal sheets with Greek texts were found in Crimea and date from the 6th century BC, while some letters found in Spain and Athens date from the 5th and 4th centuries. In subsequent centuries the use of metal leaves was limited to magic or religious texts (binding spells - defixiones, Orphic burial sheets).
Roman examples are rather scarce: besides the public sheets of bronze (epigraphs), bronze leaves were typically used for military diplomas (discharge or concession of Roman citizenship) in Latin; many have been found in Egypt, Dacia and other Imperial provinces.
Although Pliny mentions plumbea uolumina, the only roll of metal with writing which has arrived to us is the so-called Copper Scroll, dating from 1st century AD and written in Hebrew. Found in Qumran, it lists a series of treasures and their location: the most common interpretation is that it describes the distribution of the tithes in the Jerusalem Temple after it was destroyed by Titus (70 AD).


Livy (IV) mentions books written on linen kept in the Temple to Juno Moneta, which related the annals of the first years of the Roman Republic, as well as the first lists of the magistrates. In the Historia Augusta there is mention as well of books written on linen – in which Aurelian (270-75 AD) wished his military feats to be narrated – to be deposited in the Library of Trajan. From Egypt there is the well known Liber Linteus Zagrabriensis, a linen scroll 3.5 m long with an Etruscan inscription from the 1st century AD. It is the only extant linen book; the representations on Etruscan funerary sculpture show that these books were not originally scrolls but folded like accordions.  
There are many other fragments of fabric with writing from Egypt, both from the Pharaonic age and from that of the Graeco-Roman Period, but they cannot properly be referred to as “books”.

Bone and ivory

Shoulder blades, ribs and mandibles of bovines, sheep or dromedaries, since they were large and fairly flat, were the most common bones used as support materials for writing. The texts inscribed onto them were of little or no importance; human bones were used in some cases for writing down magic texts.

Ivory was used, both in Mesopotamia and in the Graeco-Roman world, as a support for wax in tablets, often organized in diptychs. These finds are, however, very rare, due to the value of the material, and they were exclusively used by the dignitaries of the Imperial Court and high-ranking clergy.

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Other materials

Egyptians in particular, but in differing ways all ancient civilizations, wrote practically on any common object. The text might be a magic formula, the name of the object’s owner, an augural expression, advertising, etc. In this sense, any context could be a support for an inscription, from the case of the quill to the funerary statue, from the amulet in faience to the alabaster vase, from the wooden sarcophagus to the decorative bronze object, from the oil lamp to the plaster on the wall of a shop, from arms to furniture, etc.  In this area the materials created for the sole purpose of supporting writing (parchment, papyrus, tablets) or materials used at a certain point exclusively as support for writing (ostraca, limestone shards) have been listed. These materials had as their main use that of bearing a text, with attention given generally more to the text than to its support material.