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Our Global Neighbours: From the Papyrus Scroll to Codex

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 16 Dec 2013

Public education and the origin of a book in antiquity.

Modern-day Book a

Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Writing on papyrus has a long history in Egypt, dating to the 4th millennium BC (before Common Era). The oldest surviving papyrus writing is from about the middle of the second millennium BC. This is remarkable since papyrus is not excessively durable material.

Papyrus was made from the sedge and related species of Cyperaceae which, like reed, grow in the marshes and shallow water along the Nile. Long stalks of papyrus sedge were cut and pealed to obtain internal pith. The pith was cut into long strips which were laid down side by side on a flat surface. The second layer of pith strips was laid on them horizontally. Thus arranged the strips were pressed together and pounded while a sticky liquid from the pith bound them together - like glue.

The height of the reeds would determine the maximum length of a single sheet of papyrus, typically no longer than about 1.8 metres. The next sheets could be pasted to the first and so on until a long narrow surface was formed. It was not unusual for a scroll to reach 20m.

Writing was done with a kind of ink, along horizontal strips so it would follow the direction of a fibre. Text was arranged in a column comparable in size to a page of a modern book. The next column was written alongside with a thumb-size space away from the first. When the columns were completed the top of the scroll was rolled with the writing surface protected by being on the inside. The lower part of the scroll was unrolled so the next row of columns could be written.

The subject of a scroll - in some descriptive or other form - was often given, as a highlight, at the beginning or the end of the scroll (or both). But if someone possessed several or many scrolls it was difficult to know what subjects they contained. Thus a short indication of the content was written on the outside, at right angles to the text within the scroll. This outside ‘label’ was often made up by a scribe, copyist or the scroll’s owner and sometimes based on the highlight given by the ‘author’ or the scribe – and it became a precursor of a book’s title.

In spite of its long use, papyrus scrolls were always cumbersome. It was time-consuming rolling it up every time reading was finished and unrolling to find a particular place in the text. It is possible that the vigorous push for the popular education of citizens – boys and girls were expected to learn to read and write in the last two centuries of the Roman Republic – contributed to a new invention. Coinciding with the beginning of Christianity a kind of notebook for school children was developed and the earliest examples are known from Rome.

First there were two small planks of wood covered with wax on the inside to protect the surface. Children would write on the wax with a stylus – a pointy equivalent of pencil. Then they would scrape the surface clean and write again, resurfacing the planks with wax overnight to get ready for the next day’s writing. Then it occurred to someone to replace wax with a few small sheets of papyrus to write on, with the extra benefit of preserving written notes for future use. The sheets were attached to each other and to the wooden plank so they would not fall out and be lost. Soon the planks evolved into a book cover and a few papyrus sheets into quires - a collection of leaves of parchment or paper folded one within the other. In essence this became a book as we know it, then called a codex.

The length of the scroll and the volume of text in a papyrus scroll were limited by the awkward process of scrolling. Finding any part of the text in this new form of book, in contrast, was easy and rapid. In consequence, a codex could contain text equivalent of several scrolls, and so from early times of the first millennium many scrolls were copied into codices.