In antiquity the exercise of writing employed lengths of pliable material, generally papyrus or parchment, stored by rolling from end to end and known as a scroll. The advantages of the scroll for recording and storing lengthy texts in a relatively compact form made it a widely used and enduring device in the ancient Near East from earliest times until the medieval period. Although the literary contents of ancient scrolls remain the interest of all students of antiquity, archaeologists are also concerned with the technical and material aspects of this pervasive and influential bibliographic form.
Given the factors of a climate favorable to both the cultivation and the preservation of papyrus, and the particular funerary practices (i.e., entombment) of the ancient Egyptians, it is no surprise that the oldest and most numerous discoveries of ancient scrolls are from Egypt. The oldest extant writing on papyrus dates from the fifth dynasty (c. 2750–2625 BCE). Although papyrus was by far the most commonly used scroll material, Egyptian documents of equal antiquity written on parchment are also attested. Owing to its capacity to contain lengthy texts, the scroll was the primary vehicle of Egyptian literature, the most commonly preserved example being the collection of funerary texts referred to as the Book of the Dead. The Aramaic papyri from Elephantine in southern Egypt also illustrate the suitability of the scroll for transmitting literary texts. Most of the texts from the archives of the Jewish military colony at Elephantine were letters or legal documents consisting of single sheets of papyrus folded from bottom to top and then sealed. Two of the texts, however, The Sayings of Aḥiqar and a copy of the Persian emperor Darius's Behistun inscription, were written in multiple columns on lengths of papyrus rolled from left to right into scrolls (Bezalel Porten, “Aramaic Papyri and Parchments: A New Look,” Biblical Archaeologist 42 : 74–104). Numerous Greco-Roman papyri have been recovered from excavations of rubbish dumps in ancient Egyptian towns, further demonstrating the historical persistence of this writing device. [See Elephantine.]
The features of compactness and portability that afforded convenience and economy of use for ancient writers also made the scroll the most vulnerable to decay. The use of the scroll outside of Egypt is therefore attested primarily from literary sources rather than archaeological remains. The earliest references to the use of scrolls in Mesopotamia date to the Neo-Assyrian period (mid-eighth–mid-seventh centuries BCE). The archaeological evidence is limited primarily to depictions in Assyrian reliefs of two scribes, one writing in cuneiform script on a tablet and the other writing in Aramaic on rolled material (James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament, 2d ed. Princeton, 1969, nos. 235, 236). Although the earliest references to written documents in biblical literature are to tablets or stones, the historical influence of Egypt over the southern Levant suggests the use of the scroll there by at least the mid-second millennium BCE. Archaeological evidence of the use of papyrus scrolls in ancient Israel includes impressions of papyrus fibers on the reverse side of clay seals and bullae, such as the one bearing the name of Baruch, son of Neriah, the seventh-century BCE scribe described in Jeremiah 36:4 as writing a scroll of the prophet's utterances (Nahman Avigad, Hebrew Bullae From the Time of Jeremiah, Jerusalem, 1986).
The Dead Sea Scrolls provide the best example of ancient scrolls from an identifiable, though secondary, archaeological context. Beyond the wealth of information contained within the texts themselves, they reveal many technical details regarding the manufacture, use, storage, and repair of parchment scrolls in antiquity. Common scribal techniques such as ruled lines and margins and a columnar arrangement of the text are readily observable from these scrolls. Other technical aspects of manuscript preparation are observable as well, such as the fastening of parchment sheets by sewing or gluing, the mixing of the carbon-based ink, and the storage of the scrolls in linen wrappers and clay jars.
Studying the material and technical aspects of ancient scrolls yields a greater understanding of the material and economic prerequisites for writing in antiquity, such as the manufacture or acquisition of papyrus, parchment, ink, and implements; it also reveals the technical skills, daily functions, and the social, political, and religious roles of scribes in the cultural systems of the ancient Near East.
- Černý, Jaroslav. Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt. London, 1952.
- Davies, Philip R. Qumran. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1982. Summary of the discovery, archaeology, and contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with judicious criticisms of previous conclusions.
- Haran, Menahem. “Book Scrolls in Israel in Pre-Exilic Times.” Journal of Jewish Studies 33 (1982): 161–173. Surveys the available archaeological evidence in conjunction with literary analyses of biblical and extrabiblical sources.
- Haran, Menahem. “Book-Scrolls at the Beginning of the Second Temple Period: The Transition from Papyrus to Skins.” Hebrew Union College Annual 54 (1983): 111–122. Includes a discussion of the (limited) evidence for the use of scrolls in Mesopotamia and the influence of Babylonian and Persian bibliographic traditions on the transmission of biblical literature.
- Reed, Ronald. Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers. London, 1972. Introduction to ancient technologies of the preparation of skins, written by a materials scientist for students of archaeology and the humanities.
- Roberts, C. H., and T. C. Skeat. The Birth of the Codex. London, 1983. Lucid treatment of the transition from scroll to codex in Western letters that demonstrates the persistence of the use of the scroll in late antiquity.
- Turner, Eric G. Greek Papyri: An Introduction. Rev. ed. Oxford, 1980. Includes a summary of the history and manufacture of papyrus scrolls and also a treatment of the archaeology of the Greco-Roman papyri discovered in Egypt in the twentieth century.
- Vaux, Roland de. Archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls. London, 1973. Summation of de Vaux's definitive reports on the excavations at Khirbet Qumran and ῾Ain Feshkha and their illumination of the Qumran manuscript discoveries.
Barry A. Jones