Ancient Materials for Reading and Writing

In antiquity a majority of materials, organic or inorganic, were used for writing.Contrary to us today that we write on paper almost exclusively, ancient people used many different types of surfaces in order to write, such as stones, clay, sheets of metal, woodenplates, papyrus etc.

Inorganic materials for writing:

Very common materials for writing on were the small fragments of the clay vases, the so called ostraka, a practical and costless material. Writing on these ostraka was incised or made of Indian ink.As it results from the excavations, ostraka were used for tax proofs, notes, certifications, letters and mainly for school exercises.Looted stones were also used for writing, while an important inorganic material for such use were metals. The brass even if it was very often used elsewhere, in the Hellenic space it was not particularly used, as here softer metals, such as lead, were preferred. Another suitable metal for writing was soft tin. Ancient Greeks very seldom used silver and gold for writing. Very few silver plates with curses have been discovered, while Plutarch mentions the golden book which the poet Aristomache dedicated to the Sanctuary of Delphi. As we can imagine, writing in such precious metals was not for everyday use and that is the reason why no such examples have come to light.

Organic materials for writing:

Among the organic materials for writing, which originated from plants, a characteristic material was timber, which was used for certain short texts. In the simplest case small wooden boards were used for writing with the use of ink. Lefkomata were named all the wooden surfaces, which were whitened first with the use of lime or plaster. Depending on the number of the connected wooden plates, they were named pyxia orptychia, diptycha, triptycha or polyptycha.The wooden plates allocated wax coating on the internal surface, while on the other side they had a projecting verge. They were named grammateia and were used mainly by the students.One or more plates joined together were also used for the writing of letters, as notepads, for literature, summaries or even as school tables.

The most important material for writing in antiquity, which also acquired great importance through the years, was papyrus. Papyrus emanated from the plant papyrus or xartis, as Greeks called it, a small tree which loves humidity and heat, with region of its distribution the river Nile in Egypt. The graphic material in question emanated from the heart of the inferior part of the plant, while Pliny gives an analytic relative report (Hist Marine Pension Fund 13,.74 ke).

The process concerning the production of papyrus was the following: the stem of the plant was cut fresh in pieces, was peeled and this way its heart was released. Then the heart was cut in thin, wide bands, which were then put on a wet board, the one beside the other.Over this layer another layer of same bands was put.Afterwards with the use of a smooth, wide stone they hit the upper surface of the bands so as the separate bands with the sticky cohesion of the crumb would be connected to each other. The leaf that was produced by this procedure, thekolima, was dried at the sun and was then burnished. Occasionally with the use of vinegar or flour more leaves, 20 or even 50 were joined together in a role where the fibers of plant went always to the same direction, externally vertical and internally horizontal.

Papyrus was always traded in the form of such roles that were then cut in the desirable size. The first leaf, the protokkollon, remained usually unwritten used as the protective leaf of the roll. The text was written in columns, selides, usually only in the internal surface, beginning from the left utmost. The title of the text and the name of the writer were entered in an additional leather band, the so called sillivo. Papyrus generally had an open tone. It was a flexible material with the proper elasticity, while mainly used for long texts.

Two other organic materials for writing were skin and parchment, materials competitive to papyrus. The difference between skin and parchment is that skin resulted from the tanning of the skin of the animal using vegetable materials that contained tanning acid. Parchment on the contrary was produced by the treatment of the skin with lime, after the skin was dried stretched and then was scraped and smoothed. Ancient literature refers to the use of the skin of the animals very often as a mean of writing, while the terms that were indiscriminately used for skin and parchment were the terms difthera and memvrana.

The ancient pencils for writing:

Sharp metal nail would be convenient enough for writing on hard materials as shells. Special slate pencils would be used when they used to write on wooden plates that were coated with a layer of wax. Such a slate pencil, the so called grafis, had on the down side a pointed utmost for writing and on the upper utmost a broad end in the form of a spatula in order to smooth the wax surface in case of an error.

Greeks and Romans manufactured their quills from brass or cane, which they cut with a certain knife, the kondylomaxairo, in its one end sidewise, giving to it a similar shape like that of the quill made of steel.Because of the fact that the quills of cane were easily worn out, they had to be cut with the kondylomaxairo quite often. So in a box with all the equipments for writing more than one quill were kept.

The ink, melan, was produced after dipping soot in water, adding Arabic gum afterwards. The ink should have been consumed on the same day and was maintained in inkwell, which was often kept along with the quills in a common case.

Writing on a soft surface, such as papyrus, ancient Greeks used a hard base underneath.Generally they used to write seated holding their wooden plates on their thighs. As these plates could not be bended they could also write standing. On papyrus or on parchment as well as on the whitened wood they used to write using ink or a feather.