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The History of Publishing Ep 1: Clay Tablets and Papyrus Scrolls

The publishing industry of the 21st century was founded on three major inventions - writing, paper, and printing. Throughout this mini series here on the Bunch blog, we are looking at the historical periods of publishing and book production that define the industry we know today.

Books have been the foundation for the preservation of knowledge through every literate society that has existed through our history.

The oldest surviving examples of books are the clay tablets of Mesopotamia and the papyrus scrolls of Egypt. The first identified author was a high priestess, Enheuduanna, of the Mesopotamian kingdom, Akkad, and the daughter of its ruler. She wrote numerous works of poetry as well as temple hymns and myths.


Mesopotamian Clay Tablets

The ancient Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians wrote on tablets made from clay. A common form was a thin four-side tile about five inches long. While the clay was wet, the writer used a stylus to inscribe it with cuneiform characters. Book production on clay tiles continued for almost two centuries. The number of surviving records from Mesopotamia indicate a heavy belief in the preservative function of writing and books. Dried in the sun or baked in a kiln, clay tablets were almost indestructible. Buried for thousands of years in the mounds of forgotten cities, they were removed intact by modern archaeologists. The current number of day tablets discovered is almost 500,000. Clay tablets are usually associated with cuneiform writing, a script that takes its modern name from the Latin word "cuneus" which means "wedge", for the shapes made by the stylus in clay. When the Aramaic language and alphabet arose in the 6th century BCE, the clay tablet fell into decline.


Egyptian Papyrus Scroll

The papyrus scroll of ancient Egypt is most likely the direct ancestor of the modern book. Papyrus, the predecessor of paper, was made from the Papyrus plant that grows in the Nile valley. Strips of papyrus pith laid on top of each other and pasted together made cream-coloured papyrus sheets. The sheets were pasted together to make a long roll: the scribe copied a text on one side of the sheets and the finished product was rolled up with the text inside. The use of papyrus affected the style of writing just as clay tablets had done. Scribes wrote on it with a reed pen or brush and inks of different colours. The result could be very decorative, especially when done in the monumental hieroglyphic style of writing, a style best adapted to stone inscriptions. The Egyptians created two cursive hands, the hieratic (priestly) and the demotic (a simplified form of hieratic suited to popular use), which were better adapted to papyrus.

Though papyrus is fragile in comparison to clay tablets, many examples have been preserved extremely well in tombs, due to Egypt's dry climate and the ancient Egyptians preservations techniques. Entombed papyrus scrolls contained mortuary texts, science documents and mythology.


Chinese Printing Revolution

Ancient China developed their own method of producing books on a large scale. Historical records show that China were writing and producing books as early as 1300 BCE. Initial books were likely made from wood or bamboo and tied together.

Many such books were burned during the reign of Qin Emperor Shi Huangdi, the ruler known for unifying ancient China and beginning the construction of the Great Wall.

The books that survived from that period helped from the first Chinese national bibliography, which held vast knowledge of medicine, military science, philosophy, poetry, divination, and astronomy.

It is believed to have documented 677 books at the time of its creation. What is unique about the survival of ancient Chinese books is their tradition of copying and creating several editions of the same texts, giving historians further insight into that period and their book production processes.


Next Episode: Episode 2. The Classics: The Greeks and The Romans

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