The Evolution of Paper

The earliest evidence of man’s desire to express and share his thoughts and ideas is found in prehistoric charcoal scribblings on cave walls.  Now, in today’s digitized world, the internet is rapidly replacing the daily newspaper, e-books are challenging books printed on paper and we are all receiving statements from our banks and utility companies urging us to go paperless.  This short article looks at some of the materials that have been used for writing over the past 5,000 years and raises the question as to where we are heading now:  will paper- which has served man so well for centuries - ever become obsolete?


This is an example of Cuneiform writing on a clay tablet. Cuneiform is a picture-writing system using symbols. Clay was obtained in the river plains of Mesopotamia where writing like this first commenced over 5000 years ago. Scribes used the corner of a reed as a stylus to make wege-like impressions in damp clay. The clay tablets were then baked hard in the sun. Cuneiform writing was not abandoned in favour of the alphabetic script until circa 100 BC.



Papyrus is an aquatic, rush-like plant that grows on the banks of the Nile in Egypt.   The ancient Egyptians made a rectangular scroll by cutting strips along the length of the plant and laying other strips across these at right angles.  The two layers were joined together by a combination of moisture, pressure and, sometimes, adhesives.  After being hammered flat, the scroll was dried in the sun.  The upper surface was polished smooth with pieces of iron or a shell and was then able to accept and retain ink without smudging.   Longer scrolls were made by pasting rectangles formed like this at their short ends and then rolling the scroll up to form a book.  These papyrus scrolls were used for over 3,500 years by the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.   The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs (sacred words).  These were beautiful but time-consuming for scribes to write so they invented a cursive form known as hieratic. An example of hieratic is shown above on a papyrus fragment from circa 1100 BC.



Bamboo is an indigenous plant in China and was used in the Shang dynasty from circa 1500 BC as a writing material.  Chinese characters from this period were written in vertical columns and a thin strip of bamboo was ideal for a single column – see above.  Longer documents were made by linking strips together using two lines of thread.    The Chinese also used silk – a much more expensive material - for writing and painting.



Small wooden tablets with a blackened beeswax surface were used as renewable notebooks in many parts of the ancient world from the 5th century BC and this continued into medieval times. This picture shows a birth certificate from 128 AD written in Latin and Greek.    A stylus made from iron, bronze or bone was used and the tablet could be reused by warming the wax and smoothing it over.  A recent archaeological dig near Bank underground station in London has unearthed a large, early collection of Roman waxed writing tablets, about 80 of which were sufficiently legible to be deciphered.  These provide a fascinating insight into what life was like during the first decades of Roman rule in Britain.


Wood and Leaves                                

This is an example of a message in Old Novgorod language – a precursor of Russian - accompanied by a crude drawing on birch bark and preserved for centuries in the mud.     During their occupation of Britain, the Romans used veneers from English trees for their correspondence.  An example of this – a birthday invitation - has been found near Hadrian’s Wall.  Palm leaves were used as a writing material in parts of India.


Parchment and Vellum                  

From the 2nd century BC, parchment – a form of leather – was used as a flexible and double-sided writing surface.   Both sides of the hide were treated and rubbed smooth and during the next few centuries parchment became a serious rival to papyrus as a writing material.  It eventually became the standard writing material in Europe for over 1,000 years.   Beautiful examples exist of illuminated manuscripts produced on parchment in European monasteries.  For more expensive books, a softer and finer version called vellum was used, made from the hides of young calves, lambs or kids.  In spite of pressure to switch to archival paper in order to save money, MPs recently voted to continue to print Acts of Parliament on vellum.  Record copies of Acts of Parliament have been printed on vellum since 1849, prior to which they were handwritten on parchment rolls.



The Chinese made paper from rags from 105 AD.   Sometimes the fibres of mulberry, laurel and grasses were added to the rags.  These materials were repeatedly soaked, pounded, washed, boiled, strained and bleached.  The resulting mush was left to drain in a mesh frame and then dried.  This early paper was thinner and more flexible than papyrus or parchment but the secret of how to make it took about 1,000 years to reach Europe.   Rags were the main ingredient in paper-making until the 19th century. As the demand for paper grew and the supply of rags became inadequate, paper makers tried to substitute esparto grass but the breakthrough came when it was discovered that wood could be pulped and turned into paper.  The first newspaper to be printed on paper made from wood pulp was the Boston Weekly Journal, January 1863.


Electronic Publishing

Electronic publishing is the distribution of information in digital form by means of a computer network rather than in print form with physical pages.   Almost anyone can now be a publisher of text, graphics, audio and video, reaching consumers globally via the internet and the World Wide Web.


Will Paper Ever Become Obsolete?

The paperless society has been predicted for about 50 years but it still seems to be a long way from fruition.  Old habits and traditions die hard.  The so-called ‘digital natives’ who grew up with the internet and cannot remember what life was like before it  seem to have the ability to pick up a new digital gadget and use it immediately without even studying the manual.  But ‘digital immigrants’ – born before 1980 - have had to ‘immigrate’ to this new digital land and struggle to learn to use it.  They tend to be nostalgic; they like the ‘feel’ of paper.   Many of them complain that reading a book on a tablet or taking an exam on a computer can hurt your eyes and give you a headache.   Digital technology is advancing at breath-taking speed and, as time goes on, an ever increasing percentage of the population will be ‘digital natives’  but we are not yet ready to make the transition to a paperless world.


For more details or a free quotation please feel free to contact us

0117 961 9049