The Projector

Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski

The History of Paper: Getting to Gutenberg

It’s midterms here! Below is a brief review of some of the work and ideas covered in my History of Paper course.

The course blog documents a bit more:

Before Paper: Caves, Clays, and Cuneiform Script

This week’s session is dedicated to precursors of paper, specifically cuneiform script found on clay tablets and the earliest hieroglyphics found carved into stone (like the Rosetta Stone).

In addition to our readings (the opening chapters of Kurlansky’s Paper and Hunter’s Papermaking), we’ll also review some videos like the ones below.  For those blogging on sessions in the upcoming weeks, it may also be helpful to begin to share some related and ongoing projects and useful links.



Students may also be interested in looking at how new digital tools and technologies allow us to see, read, translate and understand cuneiform script.  These might include 3D scanners like the one mentioned in the third video above and in free online translators like The Babylonian Cuneiform Alphabet Translator found here.

In this example, I’ve translated (with the help of this program) “The History of Paper”:

Other interesting projects include:

The ETANA Project (Electronic Tools and Ancient Near East Archives)

The CDLI (The Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative)

Digital Hammurabi (at Johns Hopkins University)

One good online resource is Mnamon, Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean: A critical guide to electronic resources.

The Egyptian Papyrus

This upcoming week’s session will focus on papyrus and, specifically, its production, use and aesthetic in Egypt.  Readings from Kurlansky and Houston have already been assigned.  Part of this session should also consider the practices of reading and storage / preservation.  To end this session, we will note how papyrus (documents and concepts) were distributed, shared, and adapted in surrounding regions, until early Christian writers in the Græco-Roman world began to cut sheets  . . . ultimately leading to the codex.  Soon, the use of papyrus in Europe was replaced by cheaper, locally-produced products like parchment and vellum.

We will continue our initial line of questions to begin:

  • How was papyrus made? What was the general process like?
  • Who made papyrus, and who supervised or controlled this process?
  • What was written on these scrolls and how?  What was the purpose, function, and cultural or symbolic meaning behind them?
  • What connections or anomalies exist between content and material?
  • How would you describe popular aesthetics?
  • How did the material relate to or influence writing systems, reading practices, the storage of these materials, etc.?

This past session, we spent some time reviewing the development of written communication.  And we have briefly noted the carved elements found on stone, such as the obelisks (monoliths).  This coming week, we will take a closer look at Egyptian Hieroglyphics and, specifically, their alphabetic elements and characters.

The hieroglyphs could be read either starting at the left or the right. In order to determine the direction to begin reading is to look for a human or animal symbol. The symbol will always face in the direction that the reading should start at. Reading is always done from top to bottom (such as with columns).  Pictured below is an ancient relief of how the Ancient Egyptians recorded moving a massive statue.

Making Papyrus

Below, please find two videos documenting demonstrations on how papyrus is made.  These were both recorded by tourists visiting the International Papyrus Museum in Giza.  Since there is no workshop schedule this week, these videos might serve as a good “how to” resource to understand the process.

Another site worth exploring is The Edwin Smith Papyrus, the world’s oldest surviving surgical text, was written in Egyptian hieratic script around the 17th century BCE, but probably based on material from a thousand years earlier. The papyrus is a textbook on trauma surgery, and describes anatomical observations and the examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of numerous injuries in exquisite detail.  The site offers an interactive button to “unroll” the scroll, a function that translates the text, and a zoom navigation button for a closer look at the writing.

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Additional resources are found below.


Columbia University Libraries Papyrology Resources

Drew University’s Classics Department Papyrology Resources Homepage

Recording, Processing and Archiving Carbonized Papyri

Professional Societies

The Invention of Paper in China

To get students started this session, I’d like to begin with Japanese artist and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai.  Most active in the early nineteenth century, Hokusai is best known for working in Ukiyo-e and woodblocks, and especially for his series on landscape prints entitled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1830-2).  His work served as a major influence to the Japonism movement in Europe later in the century and subsequent movements related to paper, printmaking, and graphic design, including Art Nouveau.

This week we will spend a little extra time on paper manufacturing, craft and tradition (in China and Japan specifically) as a precursor to our own paper-making workshop next week.


Hunter offers a great introduction to the development of the mold, the craftsmanship and traditions of papermaking, and the rituals and traditions associated with paper and writing.

We should probably begin our lesson with Cai Lun, and the invention of paper, but my goal here is to begin a comparative analysis between regions regarding the points laid out above by Hunter.

At the end of class, I would like to transition briefly to discuss expectations for the Final Project prospectus, and create a plan for our paper-making workshop at the first half of class next week.

In recent blog posts, I’ve included helpful resources for the respective topics, and students should begin getting in the habit of further contributing to the blog, both in the sharing of similar resources and in reflections / responses to the weekly readings.

Paper in Arabia and the Islamic Empire

Paper, originally, was brought by the Muslims from China. From an art, the Muslims developed it into a major industry. Paper mills flourished across the Muslim World. The impact of Muslim manufacture of paper paved the way for the printing revolution.

It followed the battle of Tallas (751) fought between Chinese and Muslims, when Chinese prisoners revealed the secret of papermaking to the Muslims. From an art, the Muslims developed it into a major industry.  The Muslims employed linen as a substitute for the bark of the mulberry, which the Chinese used. Linen rags were disintegrated, saturated with water, and made to ferment.

Many paper mills were built in Baghdad, and from there, the industry spread to various parts of the world. The paper mills constructed in Damascus were the major sources of supply to Europe, where as production increased, paper became cheaper and more available, and of better quality.

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The Illuminated Manuscript

This week we have migrated to Europe with the Illuminated Manuscript.  Before moving onto the Gutenberg Press, I wanted to share a few more videos that we didn’t have the time to view in class.

The first set contains short clips depicting the water-powered drop hammer noted in class and in our readings.  The first video, in particular, offers a good foundation to the entire process of paper-making.

The second set provides two hands-on demonstrations of the process behind creating the illuminated manuscript: the first is much more historically accurate, but the second is a fun contemporary interpretation (similar to one of our recent assignments).

And, finally, the last set focuses on Gutenberg and his printing press.  The first of the list, the BBC production hosted by Stephen Fry, is part of your homework for next week.

The Water-Powered Drop Hammer

The Illuminated Manuscript

And some selected images from one of my presentations:

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Gutenberg & the Printing Press

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