About writing surfaces ~ papyrus and parchment

If You followed my work, I believe, You have by now already learned a lot about the miraculous letters which written human history is decorated with. I told You very little about the important topic of writing surfaces, on which ancient calligraphy took place. First, I will introduce You the most famous and characteristic materials used in the Old World Calligraphy  – papyrus and parchment.

Since the story about the paper is long in itself, I will talk about it another time.

The information was collected from various sources, but also from my own experience, because I finally had the honor and pleasure of personally trying these materials.

The paper we use today is often taken for granted. If we make a mistake in writing, we crumple it up and throw it in the trash. Often without using both sides of it. Rarely anyone thinks of its real value ~ it is “just a piece of paper”.

But do You know that paper came to us in this form only a few hundred years ago?

Find out below what people used to record their letters and how they even came up with something suitable for writing in today’s sense.

  The oldest findings tell us that the first writing of the first script in the modern sense ~ cuneiform script, was done in Sumer (approx. 3500 BC) on clay tablets.


However, it is clear that such a substrate, as well as substrates such as rocks or dishes, except for storage, are not practical for transmitting or exchanging the written word, except for some quick writing or some stationary monument.


One of the most famous writing materials in the world, and the one that has been used for the longest time in human history, is ~ papyrus. Papyrus has been collected in Egypt since 6000 BC. and used for various purposes besides writing. The oldest record on papyrus was discovered in 2013, and it dates from the 4th dynasty, approx. 2500 BC. From the 3rd-11th century it is used sporadically, but it is possible to obtain it even in our modern time. 
Lucky for me, for, how would I know what it’s like?

Papyrus is obtained from the plant Cyperus papyrus, a sacred plant from the Egyptian myth of Genesis, a symbol of rebirth. This plant from the reed family likes a humid climate, just like the one along the Nile. Ironically, today papyrus is rare even in Egypt, growing as wild papyrus, smaller than its ancient parent.

Already somewhere in the 2nd century BC. papyrus was almost on the verge of extinction due to overuse. No wonder ~ it grows almost only in the Nile basin, it was used a lot in Egypt itself: for writing, for making ropes, baskets, shoes, boats… Religious and spiritual texts, letters, official documents, songs and stories, medical, scientific or technical texts, magical treatises and literature were written on it. Production was time-consuming and sensitive, so only wealthier citizens could afford it. Not to mention how popular it was in the rest of the known world at the time ~ in fact the entire written art of the ancient world depended on its supply from Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians never recorded the production process (!?), but on the basis of reconstructions it is assumed that papyrus writing sheets were obtained in the following way: The inside of the stem was cut into strips, which were laid in two mutually perpendicular layers, fixed with some binder like the muddy water of the Nile. These layers were pressed and dried to form a single sheet of papyrus.

forming the strips into a pattern
Hippocratic oath on papyrus

Smaller texts, accounts, etc. were written on such sheets. For longer texts, about 20 such sheets were joined in a row and wound on wooden sticks, which formed a scapus or roll (scroll), the first books of Greek and the Roman period (the longest one is even 40m long!)

papyrus scroll


The use of the leather as a writing surface has been known for several millennia. Which is not surprising, because in ancient times people used literally every useful part of the material world.
Even among the Assyrians and Babylonians, known for their cuneiform writing and clay tablets, we find records on parchment, as early as the 6th century BC. In Egypt, inscriptions on leather have been found as far back as the 6th Dynasty (around 2400 BC), and it was traditionally used in the rabbinical literature of the Arab world, as well as in early Islam. However, it is believed that the process of producing real parchment was perfected in the city of Pergamum in the Hellenistic era, somewhere in the 2nd century BC.

It so came to be, that after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC.Hhis kingdom divided into three dynasties that fought for prestige and tried to prove that they were worthy to be called the legitimate heirs of Alexander. Fortunately, they competed in cultural and not war achievements – for example, it was popular to build large libraries!

They worked especially hard on their prestige in the city of Pergamum, where King Eumenes II. wanted their one century-younger library to surpass the one in Alexandria in fame, number of books and scholars. The Alexandrian library then, in the 2nd century BC, had about 500,000 scrolls, and in Pergamum there were about 200,000 of them. That competition took on the characteristics of a real war, at the end of which a drastic move was made ~ the Ptolemies banned the export of papyrus to Pergamum!

rekonstrukcija Pergama

Because of the crisis sdue to the shortage of papyrus, in Pergamum they adapted to the situation and quickly found an answer ~ they perfected and promoted the method of making parchment as a writing surface, to the extent that today’s legend claims that parchment was discovered there!

This solution was quickly accepted and became widespread throughout Europe. Egyptian dominance over materials was reduced, and by the 3rd century parchment completely replaced the more expensive and already almost unavailable papyrus and started a new period of exchange and storage of knowledge, and also helped the transition from the form of scrolls to the form of books.

Its dominance lasted until the 15th century. when the paper slowly takes over the leadership that it has maintained until today. Thanks to the fact that parchment is perhaps the most durable of all materials, we also have the most preserved historical calligraphic documents and the most incredible illuminator achievements right on it. Since ancient times, it has been used for important documents, diplomas, Bibles, manuscripts, coats of arms, contracts, land records and the like, and is still used today for particularly important works of art.

Parchment is most often obtained from the skin of lambs, calves and goats. In English, calfskin backing is called vellum, which comes from the French word veau. It can also be obtained from horse, rabbit or squirrel skin. The production of parchment, like everything in the Old Age, is a long, slow and complex process, which requires attention and patience ~ with truly wonderful results.

The process looks something like this: after the skin is peeled from the animal, it is soaked for 1 day in water, and all the hair and meat are cleaned.

The skin is then soaked for about 8 days in an alkaline liquid for hair removal (which used to include lime and fermented substances, and today sodium sulfide is also added). This process must be done carefully ~ if the leather stays too long in this liquid it weakens and cannot withstand the next stage of processing ~ stretching on a wooden frame.

The skin is then attached to a simple wooden frame with nails using rope or leather strips. As it stretches, the parchment or parchminer  scrapes the surface of the skin with a special curved knife called a lunellum. During this scraping, the skin is wetted and dried several times. As there is pure collagen in the skin, when it is mixed with water it gives a kind of glue that allows the skin to keep its shape even when it is removed from the frame.

scraping the skin
hair removal
streching of parchment

At the end, the parchment goes through a series of treatments to make it even more beautiful and smooth and to absorb ink better ~ pumice stone powder is rubbed in the skin for smoothness; calcium compound pastes and powders to prevent ink from leaking; a paste of lime, flour, egg white and milk to make the parchment smooth and white.

As if this all is not interesting enough in itself, parchment has one unique feature ~ because of its structure, it is possible to use it more than once, which was often done from 7th-9th centuries. The manuscripts would be cleaned and prepared for the new text. Often the old is visible under the new ~ such manuscripts are called palimpsests.

The art of producing this special surface has been preserved until today ~ namely, the wide use of parchment decreased very much at the end of the 15th century. Like most trends, it came back into fashion at the end of the 20th century, when leather substrates were used for particularly important and significant documents, mostly of an artistic nature, due to their quality and uniqueness, and it has remained so to this day.


In my experience, both papyrus and parchment are, without question or doubt, fantastic writing surfaces.

I simply fell in love with both of them – at first sight!

What surprised me about papyrus was is its texture and patterns, and even more its pliability. It is not so flat and one has to write carefully on it so that the pen does not get caught in the fibers.

 Once I made a hole in it – which I repaired by soaking it a little, fixing the fibers and everything “just stuck together” ~ amazing!


Parchment is also fantastic ~ when I made a mistake while working, I simply ~ scraped it off with a knife without any trace ~ just like the old days.

Not to mention its divine smell and softness under the hand – it truly feels as if it was alive!

As for durability, both parchment and papyrus need to be stored in appropriate conditions, with papyrus being much more sensitive and requiring dry conditions, while parchment is durable and can survive thousands of years!

You must be wondering – where can these materials be bought in our modern times? Can they even be bought?

As for the papyrus, I hear that the “real one” is no longer available in Egypt, but is imported from France? I assume that the plant would succeed in the fertile Croatian soil? Who knows, maybe someone will try to grow it and start production here too 🤓😎.

As for parchment, (luckily for me, I am soo grateful), there is another leather workshop that makes parchment that survived in Croatia (out of about 15 of them that existed before)… Maybe the demand will increase and there will be more, who knows?

Now that You know the basics about papyrus and parchment, order Your Kalidars on special materials like these and preserve them for the next… millennia 😄

I thank You from the bottom of my heart for Your attention, hoping You found it interesting💓



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