Words that Last: Clay, Papyrus, and Computers

Two articles recently published on the BBC website recently caught my eye. The first was a discussion of the earliest known writing on Earth, as part of a series on ‘50 things that made the modern economy’. These earliest written texts were economic texts: inventories of goods, sale contracts, IOUs, written in Sumerian Cuneiform more than 5000 years ago. That texts so old, and so mundane have survived to this day can seem staggering. Works of literature – stirring epics, religious texts, love poetry – can survive over centuries because they are valued by many cultures, who dedicate time and resources to copying and recopying them. This, for example, is how almost all the works of Greek and Roman antiquity have come down to us. But who would copy out a farmer’s list of his sheep?

The reason that these texts survive is because of the materials they are written on. The Sumerians, and many of the peoples of the Near East who followed them, wrote on clay. Scribes used bone, wood, or metal styluses to inscribe hand-sized clay tablets with letters made of short wedge-shaped strokes – ‘cuneiform’. This mode of writing endured for more than three thousand years in Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and the Levant, adapted to languages as diverse as Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Elamite and Persian.

In writing on clay, the peoples of the ancient Near East had in many ways found the ideal material to ensure their works stood the test of time. When fired, clay becomes hard as rock, and essentially indestructible. It does not rot, dissolve, melt, corrode or warp. True, clay can be broken, but the broken pieces can often be pieced back together. As a result, countless texts from thousands of years of history are available to us, from great works of literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the inventories discussed by the BBC, to private letters and scribal exercises that give us a fantastic window into ordinary life in the ancient Near East.


If I sound gushing about this, it’s partly fueled by envy: very few such documents survive from the place and period I study. The Ancient Greeks wrote their everyday documents on much more perishable materials: tablets of wood and wax for temporary notes, and papyrus, imported from Egypt and Phoenicia, for permanent storage. Wood, wax and papyrus are not nearly as enduring as fired clay. In the temperate climate of Greece (and Italy, for that matter), it all-too-soon rots away. Only in the dry sand of Egypt does papyrus endure, meaning that there too we have insight into the daily life of Egyptians from the earliest Pharoahs on. But from the Greek and Roman world we have far far fewer letters, inventories or other documents of daily life. It is fortunate that the Greeks and Romans were in the habit of inscribing laws and other official documents on stone, or we would have even less knowledge of their administration.

This disparity between what survives makes me worry at times about what will endure from our own society. If our society were to collapse (touch wood it doesn’t!), how much of our writings would survive for future archaeologists? Increasingly, writings of all sorts are being digitized. This is often touted as a means of preserving the texts, which will no longer be stored in a single manuscript and thus vulnerable to destruction. In the short-term, I agree that it is, but in the long term, digitalization seems very dicey means of preserving valuable information. To begin with the obvious, computers require electricity. If we imagine archaeologists sifting through our debris thousands of years hence, will they know to supply electricity to the strange plastic and metal boxes scattering the landscape? That’s assuming the plastic and metal boxes even survive: digital equipment is not generally built with durability in mind. A memory stick can hold entire libraries’ worth of information; but it can also be destroyed by a single footstep. I don’t hold out much hope that there’d be much useful left of one after being buried in a stream-bed for a thousand years. Finally, even assuming that archival hardware survives, and can be powered-up, what guarantee is there that anyone would be able to read the information in it? Unless you know the exact software and language used to create files, it would be very hard to retrieve anything from them. My computer, after all, struggles to read files made as little as ten years ago!


Our primary non-digital writing technology isn’t much better. Paper has the same weaknesses of papyrus: it rots, it burns, it goes to mush in water. Given how little papyrus survives from Greece and Rome, I wouldn’t be greatly hopeful that much would be left from, say, rainy Britain! It makes me wonder whether, as a courtesy to the far future, we shouldn’t be working to transcribe our important documents onto something a bit more permanent.

Which brings me to the second article I read recently on the BBC website. Re-displayed from last year in light of the upcoming Queen’s Speech, it discussed the fact that the official versions of UK laws are still written on vellum – cured calf-skin. Among the reasons for this practice is a concern over durability: vellum is much tougher and long-lasting than paper. I applaud the concern for durability, but I might suggest that vellum doesn’t go quite far enough. If they really want Britain’s laws to stand the test of time, might I suggest clay?


3 thoughts on “Words that Last: Clay, Papyrus, and Computers

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  1. Pingback: Words that last…
  2. Of course, not all Near Eastern documents were written on clay. It’s very likely they wrote a huge amount on perishable materials too, from wax writing-boards to papyrus scrolls (Wen-Amon talks about the king of Byblos ‘unfurling’ the city’s annals).

    I also think the division’s not so much Near East/Classical World as People who used alphabets/people who didn’t. The Phoenicians don’t seem to have bothered with clay after the Bronze Age, for example. Maybe the linear alphabet’s a double-edged sword – it makes writing easier, but it also promotes formats that are more ephemeral.

    Finally, on clay tablets not corroding – that’s not quite true, as I can attest after my visit to the British Museum’s conservation lab last week. They can flake to dust if the conditions are wrong, regardless of whether they’ve been fired or not, and changes in atmospheric conditions can also force out dissolved salts in the clay that can cause a lot of damage. They also weren’t usually fired, so in temperate climates like the Mediterranean, you’d still have the problem of damp being highly destructive. They’re much more hard-wearing than papyrus, obviously, but some way short of indestructible.

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    1. Thank you, I definitely defer to your knowledge! I hadn’t thought of the Phoenicians, but of course even less from them survives. It’s always made me sad to think how much Phoenician literature there must have been that we completely lack.


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