2000 year old technological marvel still in use today

You could make a drinking game out of headlines proclaiming the death of books.  But the book itself was just a change from previous writing and record keeping systems… and in many cases never fully got rid of the predessors.  Tablets, scrolls, and stone inscriptions are still in use today, they just aren’t the primary form of conveying written information.  Each time there’s a leap forward in written records it doesn’t totally displace the old system, it just expands who has access to writing of any form.

But getting to the book we know today wasn’t exactly a straight path either.  There were stops in between the giant stone block and today’s paperback.  Some alternate systems still persist even today.

Cuneiform was the earliest form of writing and lasted for 3000 years.  The exact appearance shifted over that time, but the basics stayed the same.  Take a wedge shaped stylus into clay to make marks.  Let clay dry (or fire for long term storage).  Then you had a hard, durable record.  Early tablets were primarily used for accounting purposes and then slowly came to be used to record other things.   While these can be broken, cunniform tablets still turn up today.  An archaeological team in Israel recently found cuneiform tablets with some of the earliest known legal texts on them. They’re roughly 3700-3800 years old.

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform tablet

The downside here was that cuneiform tablets were heavy and took up a lot of space.  The Egyptians got around this by using papyrus, an early form of paper.  Unfortunately papyrus is sensitive to extreme dryness or wetness.  (not a great substance in a desert country that dramatically floods annually)  Papyrus also couldn’t be folded as it would crack along the folds.  This pretty well introduced the scroll format for longer  documents.  It was light and portable…. but fragile.  It also was expensive since it only grew in a very specific climate. But scrolls of papyrus were still used for 3000 or so years before falling out of favor.

The BOOK as we think of it didn’t come into common use until parchment.  Parchment (also known as vellum) is made from thinly split animal skins.  Papyrus CAN be bound in a book format but its’ brittleness made the pages fragile.  Parchment was more forgiving of being folded, so was easier to make a durable book out of.  Unfortunately it’s still sensitive to humidity, but was still an improvement over brittle papyrus.  It also could be produced virtually anywhere, you didn’t have to import papyrus from half way round the known world.  The book (or codex as they were first known) thus has existed for around 2000 years.

The printing press and the introduction of paper as we know it really just improved slightly on technology that was 1000-1500 years old at that point.  While paper invaded from Asia, the scroll still stayed popular a lot longer in Asia than in the west.  Scrolls are still used for some types of writing even now. The Jewish Torah is still traditionally written on scrolls rather than in a book format.

The wax tablet was a variation on the book that was widely used during the era when parchment and paper were  expensive for use on temporary documents.  A sheet of wax inside a fold open case was used to scratch figures into for later transfer to more permanent paper records, or erased when no longer useful.  Once the price of paper and parchment started to tumble, they fell out of favor.

Meanwhile off in the Americas, the pre-Columbian civilizations there developed their own version of the book.  They just started off using something a lot closer to what we think of as “paper”.   Amatl was made out of the inner bark of fig trees and covered in lime.  (much like modern paper is covered with clay or other minerals)  Mesoamerican codices were generally folded accordion style as they were a lot more durable than papyrus and easily withstood folding. (so looked more like street maps than what we think of as books)  Despite their durability, only around a dozen or so Mesoamerican codices survive… all the rest were burnt by missionaries and conquistadors with explicit orders to destroy them.  One of the surviving codices, the 800 year old Dresden Codex, actually survived the firebombing of Dresden, which gives you a hint as to just how durable Mayan books really were.

The Dresden Codex
The Dresden Codex survived 800 years of use AND being firebombed in WWII. It's damaged, but still survived.

Elsewhere in the world, other types of books were in use.  South Asia and Southeast Asia used palm leaves for writing on.  Once smoked and dried, they were easy to write on.   However, these needed to be recopied on a regular basis because the leaves would disintegrate.    Once the printing press was introduced in the 19th century, use of palm leaves stopped for official documents… but some archives still hold bound bundles of palm leaf documents that they’re now trying to transcribe before they disintegrate.

Palm Leaf text
Palm Leaf texts in Tamil

So, will ebooks displace the 2000 year old technology of the book?  Probably not very quickly and will probably never truly displace the book for some uses, especially long term archiving of materials.  Even with its upsides, it took a millenium for the book to displace scrolls and tablets.  For some things, it STILL hasn’t displaced them!  Even now, the book sometimes mimics the older technologies.  Cuneiform’s strength over written words on papyrus was it could be read in the dark or by the blind.  Braille text just reintroduced that strength to a new format.

Technology also expands the use of some of those older recording methods.  power tools and now laser etching makes stone carving a lot easier and there may be MORE stone inscriptions made today than there ever were when it was the only form of writing.

Digital books have much the same problem other formats faced when they were introduced: high cost, use of scarce resources that must be imported, need specialists to produce the actual text portion, and they’re sensitive to dampness and dust.  Plus a new concern: susceptibility to magnetic shifts and pulses.   If you buried a Kindle or iPad in the desert, it might not be usable after a day of that treatment, let alone 2000 years later.  You won’t be seeing hype about the discovery of the Dead Sea Kindle.  Meanwhile, archaeologists and historians are still finding those ancient texts in “dead formats” that then set off a flurry of writing in the new format about the old format.

The question isn’t whether ebooks will kill the book (they won’t), but in how much MORE  writing ebooks will make available.  Have we reached the saturation point on how much farther literacy can spread due to technological advance? The book’s key weaknesses are weight, susceptibility to dampness, and a growing sense that printing on wood pulp is environmentally untenable.  Of course, there’s new types of paper just around the corner that can knock off that last concern and are a lot less susceptible to dampness.  If costs on better print materials continue to tumble (and the costs of presses themselves) books will happily coexist with ebooks for a long time to come.

Transitory print mediums like newspapers and magazines may have a very hard time fighting off ebooks, but for now books are still what you want if you want to keep the item.  The kindle, ipad, Nook and its ilk thus aren’t really the new “book”, they’re the new wax tablet.  They’re fabulous for transitory information that can be more cheaply accessed and produced in that format, but for long term viability, the book has 2000 years of refinement on its side.

13 thoughts on “2000 year old technological marvel still in use today”

  1. Terrific research and article
    I agree that we can co-exist

    One of the things I like most about paper books is being able to share them
    especially with little children, not worrying if they get damaged or creased or even chewed.

    we still have my 23 YO’s first book a beat up copy of Spot’s First Walk

    an ebook doesn’t cut the mustard for this type of shared experience

    Therse Holland

  2. Excellent article Nora!

    One sentence jumped out at me. “The book’s key weaknesses are weight, susceptibility to dampness, and a growing sense that printing on wood pulp is environmentally untenable.”

    Regarding “weight”: Hauling a box of books from a library sale to the car has proven to me that this is true.

    Regarding “dampness”: Nothing worse than finding boxes of books that were stored directly under a leak in a garage roof.

    BUT regarding “a growing sense that printing on wood pulp is environmentally untenable.” nothing could be further from the truth. Trees, the main source of wood pulp, are a renewable crop and properly farmed land IS environmentally tenable. There are people out there that, for whatever reason, claim that the sky is falling concerning forests and mislead people into thinking that once a tree is cut down it is gone forever.

    That is not true because even if the land is left alone after a tree is removed many types of tree’s have roots that will send up shoots to replace it. I’m currently dealing with this with a pepper tree in my own backyard.

    I don’t want to get political on this site but those who love books printed on paper must shout down the lies of the doomsayers that say we are destroying the earth by cutting down a tree. Their nonsense only causes costs to rise through extra legislation added to the processes of book manufacturing as well as other goods and services.

    • TREES themselves aren’t the issue. It’s that wood is filled with lignin so requires heavy processing with chemicals to get paper white. The waste water often isn’t completely cleaned or cooled before being released back into local waterways. So you may have cholorine and dioxins being dumped into local waters. (it may also be HOT which can be just as big a problem)

      Less chemical intensive processes are slowly being phased in, but they’re generally more expensive than the old chemical heavy ones. Also as regulations tighten in one place, they may just shift to somewhere else with lots of water and lax regulations.

      There’s also the issue of getting the paper from where it’s made, to the printer, to the distributor, to the store, to the customer. Books are heavy, so chew up a fair amount of fossil fuels in their transit.

      WOOD itself is a fine natural resource and we’re unlikely to run out of trees for paper production. It’s the other parts of the equation that are the issue and why there’s so much interest in other types of paper that don’t require so much processing… or use waste from existing processes so you’re not doing anything additional. Hemp falls into the category of one that requires way less processing and no chemical processing while sugercane bagasse literally uses leftover stuff that would otherwise be landfilled.

      You still have the transport issue to deal with but non-wood papers tackle one part of the equation.

  3. This is a really interesting read, which me wonder just how far have we come today? Well in reality we’ve come a long way, but its nice to have these reminders of the past.

  4. Remember the ‘paperless office’? I’m still waiting for that.

    I wonder which will happen first – the demise of the book, or the paperless office. I think that both books and paper-filled offices are here to stay.

  5. Quick aside from my day job – don’t forget Old Chinese manuscripts written on bamboo strips.

    Back on topic, it’s always good to be reminded of the context of the death of books argument – in particular that books themselves occupy a by no means the whole of the timeline. What must not be forgotten, though, is that the timeline is longer still, and encompasses the whole history of oral storytelling – something that, from the Djemma el Fnaa in Marrakech to your local poetry slam, is still going strong

  6. An interesting and thought provoking post. I doubt that paper will disappear in this generation and maybe not even the next, but it will disappear. We haven’t quite got to a paperless office yet but it is very close. I remember 20 years ago and our office was full of files an paper. Now all of this is held on electronic documentation in a server in the cloud. email has replaced the written posts that we used to get.
    I also notice my two 20 year old daughters do every single thing online and they don’t get bank statements or anything like that any more. It is shifting, slowly yes and slower than many predicted but it is moving.

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