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Linda Finlayson on How to Make a Book in Ancient Times

Gavin MacKenzie

How to Make a Book in Ancient Times:

The first 'books' were written on surfaces that people had to hand: flat stone, large wooden tablets and tablets made of clay. To write on those surfaces people used a variety of tools. Stone tablets required a chisel and hammer and a very precise effort to chip out the letters one by one. You think you have something to complain about when you're asked to write neatly on paper, just imagine if you had to chisel your work out instead.

Wooden tablets were a little more user friendly. In ancient Egypt the scribe's tools included fine brushes, pens and ink which he carried around in a wooden box. Black ink was made from charcoal or soot, but he could also make a variety of coloured inks by crushing minerals and mixing them with water to produce red, green and blue. The brushes and pens were made from papyrus reeds, which wore out quickly so he needed a large supply.

Clay tablets were the most popular of the three. The were easily made from the clay soil, a common and inexpensive item. While the clay was still soft, the writer would use a stylus, made of wood or bone, to jab the clay repeatedly to form the outline of the letters. A bit slow, you might think, but he had to be fairly quick especially if he lived in the hot climates of the Near East because the clay did dry out. When the writing was complete, the clay tablet was then baked to harden it, making it a long lasting 'book.'

Not surprisingly all these items were large, heavy and not easily stored. You would have difficulty lugging around a large stone, which had to be a decent size to have anything of substance written on it. So this medium was generally used for official signs and announcements, something that was put in a public place for all to see. The wooden tablets were sometimes stored in what we call book form today: several tablets on top of one another and bound together by threading pieces of leather through holes in each wooden piece. But the form did restrict the size. Again, wooden tablets were hardly pocket-sized and difficult to read in bed. Clay tablets were long-lasting but had the same drawback as the stone:  large and heavy. Official documents recorded on clay were usually stored on shelves or in labeled wooden boxes, making them easier for the official or librarian to find in large collections.

Excerpted from Guarding the Treasure: How God's People Preserve God's Word (CF4K, 2011)

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