Antiquity of Ink

By David N. Carvalho

ancient scribe




THERE is a difference of opinion as to what nation belongs the honor of the invention of the art of handwriting. Sir Isaac Newton observes:

“There is the utmost uncertainty in the chronology of ancient kingdoms, arising from the vanity of each claiming the greatest antiquity, while those pretensions were favoured by their having no exact account of time.”

Its antiquity has been exhaustively treated by many writers; the best known are Massey, 1763, The Origin and Progress of Letters;” Astle, 1803, “The Origin and Progress of Writing;” Silvestre, “Universal Palaeography,” Paris, 1839-41 ; and Humphreys, 1855, “The Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing.” They, with others, have sought to record the origin and gradual development of the art of writing from the Egyptian Hieroglyphics of 4000 B. C.; the Chinese Figurative, 3000 B. C. ; Indian Alphabetic, 2000 or more B. C. ; the Babylonian or Cuneiform, 2000 years B. C.; and the Phoenician in which they include the Hebrew or Samaritan Alphabet, 2000 or more B. C., down to the writings of the new or Western world of the Christian era.

The data presented and the arguments set forth, deserve profound respect, and though we find some favoring the Egyptians, or the Phoenicians, the Chaldeans, the Syrians, the Indians, the Persians or the Arabians, it is best to accept the concensus of their opinion, which seems to divide between the Phoenicians and the Egyptians as being the inventors of the foremost of all the arts. “For, in Phoenicia, had lived Taaut or Thoth the first Hermes, its inventor, and who later carried his art into Egypt where they first wrote in pictures, some 2200 years B. C.”

The art appears to have been first exercised in Greece and the West about 1500 or 1800 B. C., and like all arts, it was doubtless slow and progressive.  The Greeks refer the invention of written letters to Cadmus, merely because he introduced them from Phoenicia, then only sixteen in number. To these, four more were added by Simonides. Evander brought letters into Latium from Greece, the Latin letters being at first nearly the same form as the Greek. The Romans employed a device of scattering green sand upon tables, for the teaching of arithmetic and writing, and in India a “sand box” consisting of a surface of sand laid on a board the finger being utilized to trace forms, was the method followed by the natives to teach their children.  It is said that such methods still obtain even in this age, in some rural districts of England.

After the invention of writing well-informed nations and individuals kept scribes or chroniclers to record in writing, historical and other events, mingled with claims of antiquity based on popular legends.

These individuals were not always held in the highest esteem. Among the Hebrews it was considered an honorable vocation, while the Greeks for a long time treated its practitioners as outcasts. It was an accomplishment possessed by the few even down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era. The rulers of the different countries were deficient in the art and depended on others to write their documents and letters to which they appended their monogram or the sign of the Cross against their names as an attestation.  So late as A. D. 1516 an order was made in London to examine all persons who could write in order to discover the authorship of a seditious document.

The art of writing is not mentioned in the Bible prior to the time of Moses, although as before stated, in Egypt and the countries adjacent thereto it was not only known but practiced.

Its first mention recorded in Scripture will be found in Exodus xvii. v. 14; “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write this, for a memorial, in a book; and rehearse it in the ear of Joshua; for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” This command was given immediately after the defeat of the Amalekites near Horeb, and before the arrival of the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

It is observable, that there is not the least hint to induce us to believe that writing was then newly invented; on the contrary, we may conclude, that Moses understood what was meant by writing in a book; otherwise God would have instructed him, as he had done Noah in building the Ark; for he would not have been commanded to write in a book, if he had been ignorant of the art of writing; but Moses expressed no difficulty of comprehension when he received this command. We also find that Moses wrote all the works and all the judgments of the Lord, contained in the twenty-first and the two succeeding chapters of the book of Exodus, before the two written tables of stone were even so much as promised. The delivery of the tables is not mentioned till the eighteenth verse of the thirty-first chapter, after God had made an end of communing with him upon the mount, though the ten commandments were promulgated immediately after his third descent.

Moses makes frequent mention of ancient books of the Hebrews, but describes none, except the two tables on which God wrote the ten commandments. These he tells us, were of polished stone, engraven on both sides and as Calmet remarks: “it is probable that Moses would not have observed to us these two particulars so often as he does, were it not to distinguish them from other books, which were made of tables, not of stone, but of wood and curiously engraven, but on one side only.”

It cannot be said that Moses uses any language which can be construed to mean the employment of rolls of papyrus, or barks of trees, much less of parchment.  We have therefore reason to believe that by the term book, he always means table-books, made of small thin boards or plates.

The edicts, as well as the letters of kings, were written upon tablets and sent to the various provinces, sealed with their signets. Scripture plainly alludes to the custom of sealing up letters, edicts and the tablets on which the prophets wrote their visions.

The practice of writing upon rolls made of the barks of trees is very ancient. It is alluded to in the Book of Job: “Oh! that mine adversary had written a book; surely I would take it upon my shoulders, and bind it as a crown to me.” (Old version.) The new one runs: “And that I had the indictment which mine adversary hath written!” The rolls, or volumes, generally speaking, were written upon one side only.  This is intimated by Ezekiel who observes that he saw one of in extraordinary form written on both sides: “And when I looked, behold, an Hand was sent unto me, and lo! a roll of a book was therein; and he spread it before me, and it was written within and without.”

To have been able to write on dry tablets of wood or barks of trees with the reed or brush, the then only ink-writing instruments in vogue would have necessitated the employment of lampblack suspended in a vehicle of thick gum, or in the form of a paint. Both of these maybe termed pigmentary inks. The use of thin inks would have caused spreading or blotting and thus rendered the writing illegible.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica generalizes its remarks on this subject:--

“The earliest writings were purely monumental and accordingly those materials were chosen which were supposed to last the longest. The same idea of perpetuity which in architecture finds its most striking exposition in the pyramids was repeated, in the case of literary records, in the two columns mentioned by Josephus, the one of stone and the other of brick, on which the children of Seth wrote their inventions and astronomical discoveries; in the pillars in Crete on which, according to Porphyry, the ceremonies of the Corybantes were inscribed; in the leaden tablets containinlu the works of Hesiod, deposited in the temple of the Muses, in Boeotia; in the ten commandments on stone delivered by Moses; and in the laws of Solon, inscribed on planks of wood. The notion of a literary production surviving the destruction of the materials on which it was first written—the ‘momentum, aere perennius’ of Horace’s ambition—was unknown before the discovery of substances for systematic transcription.

“Tablets of ivory or metal were in common use among the Greeks and Romans. When made of wood—sometimes of citron, but usually of beech or fir—their inner sides were coated with wax, on which the letters were traced with a pointed pen or stiletto (stylus), one end of which was used for erasure. It was with his stylus that Caesar stabbed Casca in the arm when attacked by his murderers.  Wax tablets of this kind continued in partial use in Europe during the middle ages; the oldest extant specimen, now in the museum at Florence, belongs to the year 1301.”

Later the Hebrew Scriptures were written in ink or paint upon the skins of ceremonially clean animals or even birds. These were rolled upon sticks and fastened with a cord, the ends of which were sealed when security was an object. They were written in columns, and usually upon one side, only. The writing was from right to left; the upper margin was three fingers broad, the lower one four fingers; a breadth of two fingers separated the columns. The columns ran across the width of the sheet, the rolled ends of which were held vertically in the respective hands. When one column was read, another was exposed to view by unrolling it from the end in the left hand, while the former was hidden from view by rolling up the end grasped by the right band. The pen was a reed, the ink black, carried in a bottle suspended from the girdle.

The Samaritan Pentateuch is very ancient, as is proved by the criticisms of Talmudic writers. A copy of it was acquired in 1616 by Pietro della Valle, one of the first discoverers of the cuneiform inscriptions.  It was thus introduced to the notice of Europe. It is claimed by the Samaritans of Nablus that their copy was written by Abisha, the great-grandson of Aaron, in the thirteenth year of the settlement of the land of Canaan by the children of Israel. The copies of it brought to Europe are all written in black ink on vellum or “cotton” paper, and vary from 12mo to folio. The scroll used by the Samaritans is written in gold letters. (See Smith’s “Dictionary of the Bible,” vol. III, pp. 1106-1118.) Its claims to great antiquity are not admitted by scholars.

The enumeration of some of the modes of writing may be interesting:

The Mexican writing is in vertical columns, beginning at the bottom.

The Chinese and Japanese write in vertical columns, beginning at the top and passing from left to right.

The Egyptian hieroglyphics are written invertical columns or horizontal lines according to the shape and position of the tablet. It is said that with the horizontal writing the direction is indifferent, but that the figures of men and animals face the beginning of the line. With figures, the units stand on the left.

The Egyptians also wrote from right to left in the hieratic and demotic and enchorial styles. The Palasgians did the same, and were followed by the Etruscans.  In the demotic character, Dr. Brugsch remarks that though the general direction of the writing was usually from right to left, yet the individual letters were formed from left to right, as is evident from the unfinished ends of horizontal letters when the ink failed in the pen.

In writing numbers in the hieratic and enchorial the units were placed to the left. The Arabs write from right to left, but received their numerals from India, whence they call them “Hindee,” and there the arrangement of their numerals is like our own, units to the right.

The following noteworthy passage is taken from Humphreys’ work “On the Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing:”

“Nearly all the principal methods of ancient writing may be divided into square capitals, rounded capitals, and cursive letters; the square capitals being termed simply capitals, the rounded capitals uncials, and the small letters, or such as had changed their form during the creation of a running hand, minuscule. Capitals are, strictly speaking, such letters as retain the earliest settled form of an alphabet; being generally of such angular shapes as could conveniently be carved on wood or stone, or engraved in metal, to be stamped on coins. The earliest Latin MSS. known are written entirely in capitals like inscriptions in metal or marble.

"The uncial letters, as they are termed, appear to have arisen as writing on papyrus or vellum became common, when many of the straight lines of the capitals, in that kind of writing, gradually acquired a curved form, to facilitate their more rapid execution. However this may be, from the sixth to the eighth, or even 10


century, these uncials or partly rounded capitals prevail.

“The modern minuscule, differing from the ancient cursive character, appears to have arisen in the following manner: During the 6


and 7


centuries, a kind of transition style prevailed in Italy and some other parts of Europe, the letters composing which have been termed semi-uncials, which, in a further transition, became more like those of the old Roman cursive. This manner, when definitely formed, became what is now termed the minuscule manner; it began to prevail over uncials in a certain class of MSS. about the 8


century, and towards the 10


its general use was, with few exceptions, established. It is said to have been occasionally used as early as the 5


century; but I am unable to cite an authentic existing monument. The Psalter of Alfred the Great, written in the 9


century, is in a small Roman cursive hand, which has induced Casley to consider it the work of some Italian ecclesiastic.”

The learned who have made a life study of the history of the most ancient manuscripts, mention them specifically in great number and of different countries, which would seem to indicate that the art of handwriting had made great strides in the very olden times; many nations had adopted it, and B. C. 650 “it had spread itself over the (then known) greater part of the civilized world.”

We can well believe this to be true in reading about the ancient libraries, notwithstanding that some rulers had sought to prohibit its exercise.

Plato, who lived B. C. 350, expresses his views of the importance of writing in his imaginary colloquy between Thamus, king of Egypt, and Thoth, the god of the liberal arts of the Egyptians; he acquaints us:

“That the discourse turned upon letters. Thoth maintained the value of Writing, as capable of making the People wiser, increasing the powers of Memory; to this the king dissented, and expressed his opinion that by the exercise of this Art the multitude would appear to be knowing of those things of which they were really ignorant, possessing only an idea of Wisdom, instead of Wisdom itself.”

Pythagoras, B. C. 532, we are informed by Astle:

“Went into Egypt where he resided twenty-two years; he was initiated into the sacerdotal order, and, from his spirit of inquiry, he has been justly said to have acquired a great deal of Egyptian learning, which he afterwards introduced into Italy.  The Pythagorean schools which he established in Italy when writing was taught, were destroyed when the Platonic or new philosophy prevailed over the former. Polybius (lib. ii. p. 175) and Jamblichus (in vita Pythag.) mention many circumstances, relative to these facts, quoted from authors now lost; as doth Porphyry, in his life of Pythagoras.”

For the hundred years or more following, however, the dissemination of learning and the transcription of events was not to be denied. We find ink-written volumes (rolls) relating to diverse subjects being loaned to one another; correspondence by letter to and from distant lands of frequent occurrence, and the art of handwriting regularly taught in the schools of learning.  Its progress was to be interrupted by the wars of the Persians. Mr. Astle in calling attention to events which have contributed to deprive us of the literary treasures of antiquity thus refers to them:

“A very fatal blow was given to literature, by the destruction of the Phoenician temples, and of the Egyptian colleges, when those kingdoms, and the countries adjacent, were conquered by the Persians, about three hundred and fifty years before Christ. Ochus, the Persian general, ravaged these countries without mercy, and forty thousand Sidonians burnt themselves with their families and riches in their own houses. The conqueror then drove Nectanebus out of Egypt, and committed the like ravages in that country; afterwards he marched into Judea, where he took Jericho, and sent a great number of Jews into captivity. The Persians had a great dislike to the religion of the Phoenicians and the Egyptians; this was one reason for destroying their books, of which Eusebius (De Preparat.  Evang.) says, they had a great number.”

These losses, apparently, did not interfere with the progress of the art in more western countries. Professor Rollin in his “Ancient History,” 1823, remarks:

“Ptolemy Soter, King of Egypt B. C. 285, had been careful to improve himself in public literature, as was evident by his compiling the life of Alexander, which was greatly esteemed by the ancients, but is now entirely lost. In order to encourage the cultivation of the sciences, which he much admired, he founded an academy at Alexandria, called the Museum, where a society of learned men devoted themselves to philosophic studies, and the improvement of all other sciences, almost in the same manner as those of London and Paris. For this purpose, he began by giving them a library, which was prodigiously increased by his successors.

“His son Philadelphus left a hundred thousand volumes in it at the time of his death, and the succeeding princes of that race enlarged it still more, till at last it consisted of seven hundred thousand volumes.

“This library was formed by the following method: All the Greek and other books that were brought into Egypt were seized, and sent to the Museum, where they were transcribed by persons employed for that purpose. The copies were then delivered to the proprietors, and the originals were deposited in the library.

“As the Museum was at first in that quarter of the city which was called Bruchion, and near the royal palace, the library was founded in the same place, and it soon drew vast numbers thither; but when it was so much augmented, as to contain four hundred thousand volumes, they began to deposit the additional books in the Serapion. This last library was a supplement to the former, for which reason it received the appellation of its Daughter, and in process of time had in it three hundred thousand volumes.

“In Caesar’s war with the inhabitants of Alexandria, a fire, occasioned by those hostilities, consumed the library of Bruchion, with its four hundred thousand volumes. Seneca seems to me to be out of humour, when, speaking of the conflagration, he bestows his censures both on the library itself, and the eulogium made on it by Livy, who styles it an illustrious monument of the opulence of the Egyptian kings, and of their judicious attention to the improvement of the sciences. Seneca, instead of allowing it to be such, would have it considered only as a work resulting from the pride and vanity of those monarchs, who had amassed such a number of books, not for their own use, but merely for pomp and ostentation. This reflection, however, seems to discover very little sagacity; for is it not evident beyond contradiction, that none but kings are capable of founding these magnificent libraries, which become a necessary treasure to the learned, and do infinite honour to those states in which they are established?

“The library of Serapion, did not sustain any damage, and it was undoubtedly there that Cleopatra deposited those two hundred thousand volumes from that of Pergamus, which was presented to her by Antony. This addition, with other enlargements that were made from time to time, rendered the new library of Alexandria more numerous and considerable than the first; and though it was ransacked more than once, during the troubles and revolutions which happened in the Roman empire, it always retrieved its losses, and recovered its number of volumes. In this condition it subsisted for many ages, displaying its treasures to the learned and curious, till the seventh century, when it suffered the same fate with its parent, and was burnt by the Saracens, when they took that city in the year of our Lord 642. The manner by which this misfortune happened is too singular to be passed over in silence.

“John, surnamed the Grammarian, a famous follower of Aristotle, happened to be at Alexandria, when the city was taken; and as he was much esteemed by Amri Ebnol As, the general of the Saracen troops, he entreated that commander to bestow upon him the Alexandrian library. Amri replied, that it was not in his power to grant such a request; but that he would write to the Khalif, or emperor of the Saracens, for his orders on that head, without which he could not presume to dispose of the library. He accordingly wrote to Omar, the then Khalif, whose answer was, that if those books contained the same doctrine with the Koran, they could not be of any use, because the Koran was sufficient in itself, and comprehended all necessary truths; but if they contained any particulars contrary to that book, they ought to be destroyed. In consequence to this answer, they were all condemned to the flames, without any further examination; and, for that purpose, were distributed among the public baths; where, for the space of six months, they were used for fuel instead of wood. We may from hence form a just idea of the prodigious number of books contained in that library; and thus was this inestimable treasure of learning destroyed!

The Museum of Bruchion was not burnt with the library which was attached to it. Strabo acquaints us, in his description of it, that it was a very large structure near the palace, and fronting the port; and that it was surrounded with a portico, in which the philosophers walked. He adds, that the members of this society were governed by a president, whose station was so honourable and important, that, in the time of the Ptolemies, he was always chosen by the king himself, and afterwards by the Roman emperor; and that they had a hall where the whole society ate together at the expense of the public, by whom they were supported in a very plentiful manner.”

Among the other events contributing to the deplorable losses which mankind has sustained in this respect, a sad one was when the most ancient ink writings of the Chinese were ordered to be destroyed by their emperor Chee-Whange-Tee, in the third century before Christ, with the avowed purpose that everything should begin anew as from his reign. The small portion of them which escaped destruction were recovered and preserved by his successors.



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