writing materials

   A wide variety of writing materials were used in Mesopotamia and surrounding regions over the course of ancient times. Among the earliest, and for a long time the most common, of these was the simple clay tablet. A slab of moist clay was an inexpensive, easy, and inviting medium for conveying any form of writing. It was also quite durable. The clay hardened as it dried, and it could be made even harder and longer lasting by baking it in a fire or oven. Various forms of cuneiform (wedge-shaped writing), including Sumerian, Babylonian, Hittite, and others, were committed to clay tablets from the late fourth millennium b.c. to the first century a.d. Hundreds of thousands of these tablets have survived, and some are on display in museums around the world. A typical tablet included not only a written list, message, or piece of literature but also a colophon. This consisted of a mark or marks made by the scribe as a means of identification; the colophon could include one or a combination of the following: the title of the work; a catchphrase, often consisting of the first line of the work; the scribe's name; or the page number of the tablet if it was part of a long work requiring several tablets. In the case of a personal letter, the tablet was placed in an "envelope" also made of dried clay.
   Although clay tablets remained a major writing material in Mesopotamia for a long time, people did use other materials. cylinder seals, made of clay or stone, were also fairly common. Stelae, consisting of large slabs of stone or dried clay, were also used by rulers to commemorate military victories or issue royal decrees. A cheaper, easier, and more informal medium - the ostrakon, a broken piece of pottery - was also used for scribbling simple messages or records of financial transactions of no particular literary merit or importance. Still other writing media included cliff faces (a famous example being the Behis-tun Rock); human-made walls; coffin lids; and even jewelry, although there was a limit to how much could be written on a piece of jewelry. Meanwhile, students and scribes in schools often used wooden boards covered in wax, which had the advantage of being reusable. They etched their writing into the wax, which hardened somewhat. Then, whenever they desired, they could add fresh wax or smooth out the old and begin writing something completely new.
   Another popular writing material became common in Mesopotamia in the first millennium b.c., although it was known on a more limited basis before that. This was papyrus, a kind of paper made from a marsh plant native to Egypt. The Egyptians exported it to Greece, Italy, Palestine, and other neighboring lands throughout ancient times. The first-century a.d. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder gives this description of how it was made:
   Paper is manufactured from papyrus by splitting it [the plant's stem] with a needle into strips that are very thin but as long as possible. The quality of the papyrus is best at the center of the plant and decreases progressively toward the outsides. . . . All paper is "woven" on a board dampened with water from the Nile [to prevent the strips from drying out]; the muddy liquid acts as glue. First, an upright layer is smeared on the table - the whole length of the papyrus is used and both its ends are trimmed; then strips are laid across and complete a criss-cross pattern, which is then squeezed in presses. The sheets are dried in the sun and then joined together. (Natural History, 13.71-74)
   Glue was used to accomplish this joining of papyrus sheets. Next, about twenty of the bound sheets were wound around a wooden dowel, making a roll usually 20 or 30 feet (6 or 9m) long. People wrote on the papyrus with a reed or a bronze pen dipped in ink manufactured from soot. Each roll, or "book," held roughly ten- to twenty thousand words of text.
   When Aramaic, the alphabetic language of the Aramaeans, became widely used across the Near East in the first millennium b.c., it was often written on papyrus sheets or rolls. Assyrian scribes began using papyrus as a writing material, along with clay tablets, in the eighth century b.c.
   A few centuries later the Persians, who inherited the Mesopotamian plains from the Assyrians and the Babylonians, also adopted the dual use of papyrus and clay tablets. The Greeks, who followed the Persians in the area, had been using papyrus for some time, as well as parchment made from dried and stretched animal hides. Seleucid merchants and scribes used both of these writing media as well as most of the others mentioned above.
   See also: languages; literature; scribe; writing

Ancient Mesopotamia dictioary. . 2015.

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