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Ancestors to printed books in UTSA Special Collections

February 22, 2017

Surfaces ranging from stone, clay tablets, pieces of wood, bone, ivory, tortoise shell, linen, and palm leaves have been used to inscribe words or images by ancient civilizations. Around 2600 B.C.E, a new writing surface, a predecessor to a printed page/book appeared, serving the needs of ancient scribes and writers for centuries. Or, at least until the first century, C.E. when parchment (untanned leather) became the writing surface or technology of choice for ancient literati.

The papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) grew in abundance along the bank of the Nile River and the ancient Egyptians developed a process of turning the reeds into paper. Once processed, pressed and dried, sheets of papyrus proved durable and smooth enough to write on, using reeds, quills and ink made from charcoal and water.  A typical papyrus sheet was 12 inches in height, and multiple sheets were often glued together to create a much larger writing surface. Thus joined, the papyrus scrolls could reach fifty to one hundred feet long.

Because of the durability of papyrus, a number of scrolls containing ancient legal, medical, moral, and scientific texts have survived over the centuries at libraries and museums around the world.  At UTSA Special Collections we are especially lucky to have uncovered three distinct fragments of writing on papyrus in the Perine-Deitert Manuscript, Early Print and Bible Collection, MS 269.

The earliest papyrus fragment in our collections appears to be from 300/200 B.C.E and is written in the ancient Egyptian script called Demotic, or popular script used for writing for documents. The second fragment, from 300 C.E, is written in Greek, and the last piece, written in Coptic can be dated to 500-600 C.E. [i]

The three fragments are accompanied by research notes and correspondence, which highlight the difficulties in working with fragmentary evidence and deciphering the meaning behind these mysterious pieces of ancient technology and history.

[i]  Howard, Nicole. 2005. The Book: The Life Story of a Technology. Greenwood Technographies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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