Recycling in the Ancient World

Recycling in the Ancient World

Photo: Andreas Praefcke

Recycling, reusing and reducing were methods started millenia ago in ancient civilizations.  Although the Bible and official documents were written on scrolls of papyrus made from a water plant and later parchment made from animal hides, a waxed writing tablet was used for daily writing activities.  The ancient Romans, for example, used this tablet for accounting, teaching, measuring time and direction and for general note taking.  This was a wooden writing board overlaid and sealed with beeswax.

They wrote on it using a blunt reed or a stylus-like instrument and when they wanted to erase and start again, they saved the shavings and pressed them back into the board or simply overlaid it with wax again; probably leaving it in the sun to melt down would also be a method they utilized.  One could also wipe the tablet clean by smoothing out the depressions with the same stylus that made those indentures; kind of like an ancient PDA or Palm Pilot.  Talk about restoring and reusing – they knew it before we did.

The waxed writing boards were often linked loosely to a covered tablet known as a double-leaved diptych, meaning a two-panel or plate object that is hinged and folds closed for protection.  In late antiquity, diptychs were sometimes made of ivory. During the Middle Ages, people used a triptych with three panels for altarpieces.  The waxed tablet itself was used as far back as biblical times by the Israelites as it was very handy, being reuseable and portable.  An example of this is found at Luke chapter one, whereas Zechariah had temporarily lost the ability to speak, but was asked what name he wanted his son to have.  Apparently with gestures (verse 63), “He asked for a tablet and wrote:  ‘John is its name.’ ”

Painter Douris' painting of Ancient Greek with a wax writing tablet in Museum BerlinPhoto: Pottery Fan

This is not the only example, for the Greek epic poet Homer mentions the folding writing tablets in his narrated tale of Bellerophon in “The Iliad” (vi 155-203).  Marcus Fabius Quintilianus known in English translations as simply Quintilian (with various other spellings) also wrote about them.  His surviving work titled “Institutio Oratoria X” includes mention of the waxed tablets in Chapter 3, and was published near or around 95 A.D.

Even in later years, the tablets were still used by a hospital established in 1500 A.D. located in Enns, Austria’s oldest city. The hospital used the waxed writing boards for its servitude records.  A few other blue collar jobbers such as a salt mining authority and a fish market used them until the mid 1850s.  There are many wax tablet books from the Medieval period on display in several European museums, but if you can’t visit, just try googling pictures of wax tablets. Though results will not display wax tablets from those eras, it will give you a few more examples.  The photo above is from a painting by Douris depicting an ancient Greek using the writing tablet, and this artwork is from around or near 500 B.C. or properly termed B.C.E.

Tanakh scrolls - entire setPhoto: Pete Unseth

When the scribes and copyists created the original biblical scrolls, they used natural products, and when codices replaced the scrolls, they reduced or conserved paper.  Handwritten scrolls or rolls had a number of sheets, usually papyrus, but could also be parchment, joined together side-by-side with paste or string and occasionally sewn together with linen thread and wound on a stick, but if they were particularly lengthy, two sticks were used.

The paper height and its width (for each piece side-by-side) did vary slightly as did the total length, and at times could be many meters long, which was cumbersome.  Once a book of the bible was finished and fastened together, it was called a volume, derived from the Latin word volumen, meaning a “roll.”  Above is a complete set of the Jewish Tanakh, the equivalent to the Christian’s Old Testament, which is properly termed the Hebrew scriptures.

Can you imagine housing or storing them, cataloging them, re-rolling them after each use, and trying to find anything quickly within its contents?  And that’s not all, for the edges of the rolls were trimmed, smoothed with pumice stone, colored and dipped in cedar oil to protect them from insects.

There is no doubt that they were resourceful and crafty, but time, effort and space was not conserved.  They did however, regardless of the tedious multi-tiered steps to accomplish the task, took great care in making and preserving these items and at the same time used natural products like pumice stone, wood, cedar oil, papyrus and linen thread, which is derived from a sustainable product.

A page or one side of a leave from a codex - mechanical scan or photocopyPhoto: Bernard Grenfell

Later, when the transition of the codex or leaf-book replaced the notebook-like roll form of the book, it also became more economical for because it reduced the amount of paper because as writing was done on both sides of the leaves, which was a single sheet. Each side was being used as a page, so that the application of recto-verso or two-sided text was used.

Although the picture above is specifically a remnant from the book of John, the entire collection is not limited to biblical writings for there are religious, devotional, literary, and administrative texts as well as private letters and trademen’s accounts in the papyri collection.  It is, however, on papyrus and the collection is done in the codex (book style method).  The recto side is displayed in mechanical scan or photocopy form and is part of the Ryland Papyri Collection housed in the John Randolph Univeristy Library in the United Kingdom.

In addition to economic reasons and time saving steps, the codex provided compactness, better transport, was easily searchable, afforded better protection and was portable much like that of its precursor, the waxed writing tablet.  Later pages were made using linen and then linen paper, so while advances were made in order to work smarter and not harder, those writing still made up a green society.

The scroll was still mainly used at the beginning of the 1st century, but by the end of that century, the codex was being used.  The first written mention of a codex was by Marcus Valerius Martialis, known in English as Martial, where he praised the codex for its compactness in his book Apophoreta CLXXXIV or just known as XIV.  The codex, however, did not take a stronghold until the 3rd or 4th centuries A.D. or properly termed C.E.

Papyrus on Nile River banks in UgandaPhoto: Michael Shade

Although the later biblical scholars, linguists, translators and historians, who translated the bible into other languages, did not have an eraser at the end of their instrument, they were still able to erase from the paper or pseudo paper-like products and start again.  They recycled even way back then.  These manuscripts are called palimpsests from the Latin palimpsestus and Greek palimpsestos, meaning “scraped again.”

Some inks were also made so they could be erased by a wet sponge or damp cloth, particularly if papyrus had been used (see photo above) and if the ink was still fairly fresh.  One such palimpsest, done on vellum (a finer parchment) is known by some as the Codex Ephraemi rescriptus, but the full name is actually “Codex Ephraemi Syri rescriptus” because it was written over with discourses of Ephraem Syrus (the Syrian), rendered in Greek.

This re-writing is not pointed out for the sake of entering a contest of who’s right or wrong or which biblical codex is the most accurate, but only to illustrate ancient peoples’ techniques for conserving and reusing paper.  Although it originated in the 5th century C.E., the rewritten work was done approximately around the 12th century, at a time when vellum was scarce, which would explain the conservation of paper.

Additionally, this codex is internationally designated as the letter “C”, and is preserved, or what’s left of it, at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (Paris) or in English it is known as the National Library of France.  Scholars have deciphered the underlying text, which has been done by technical means, which can include but is not limited to photography and using chemical reagents.

This codex, which is also a palimpsest, has uncial lettering, which means it has large, separated capital letters, (not a connected flowing cursive style) with generally no word separation, punctuation or accent marks.

Some changes to letter styling took place in the 6th century C.E., but it wasn’t until the 9th century that the cursive or minuscule styling really stuck.  Uncial or majuscule lettering aids in dating the work according to Codicologists and Palaeographists.  This codex is not as old as some of the papyri writings (writing on papyrus), but it is older than the minuscule (or cursive) writings.

Interestingly enough, parchment is still used today as in the case of The University of Notre Dame in the United States that prints their diplomas on animal parchment and also the the University of Glasgow that uses parchment from goat parchment paper  for their degrees at graduation.

(A picture of the codex is available in the United States and a few other countries where its copyright has expired, but not all countries consider this to be in the public domain for they do not subscribe to the same set of copyright requirements so I will re-direct you to this link.)


Inkhorn stand and inkhorns - reproductionPhoto: una de saint luc

Old items were given new uses in ancient biblical times, such as the way they arrived at a source for ink.  The oldest specimens reveal that the ink pigment was carbonaceous black, either in the form of amorphous soot obtained from burning wood or oil, thereby reducing waste,  It is also possible that a crystalline charcoal from vegetable or animal sources was used.  If vegetable juices or dyes were ever used in inks, they long ago disappeared because of their perishable nature, but that is why copyists copied and recopied the manuscripts.

In general, however, the inks were made of a pigment or coloring material dispersed in a medium containing gum, glue or varnish, which acted both as a carrying agent (or vehicle) and as a binder to hold the pigment on the surface; killing two birds with one stone was forward thinking for the time period.

The best inks were made by meticulously grinding and dispersing the pigments in their vehicles, and then usually stored as dried cakes or bars for reuse later, so none of it went to waste.  The ink was applied by a brush or reed dipped into an inkhorn, similar to an inkwell, but from the horn of an animal that again was recycled.

The inkhorn was sometimes called a secretary’s inkhorn as mentioned in Ezekiel 9:2, 3 and 11, but was held in place by a girdle about the waist, which could, I suppose, be likened to that of a tool belt worn by carpenters and laborers.  The secretary’s inkhorn may have been similar to the ancient Egyptian scribe kit.  Their kit was a long, narrow, wooden case with compartments or slots for reed pens, and at least one recess area on the top outer face for a small cake of dried ink, which was also similar to the Syrian scribe kit per inscriptions.

The scribes would moisten the end of their writing instrument before placing it in the ink, and viola, they were ready.  The picture above is a recreation of a 12th century inkhorn stand with recessed areas for the inkhorns based on one used in a self portrait of Frater Rufillus of Weissenau The ones used in ancient biblical times were somewhat different, but this is a fair representation.

The writing instruments, paper, ink, methods of paper preservation and assemblage were all green.  Going green is not new; it’s millenia old.  Today, green technology is all the rage, but ancient writers did it without technology!