There are three broad categories of writing surface used: mineral, vegetal and animal.

The degree of literacy in any given society determines what sort of writing materials that society will use: a scarcely literate society tends to write on durable and resilient supports, while a highly literate society uses materials cheap and abundant, but also perishable. As a result, it is possible that more written pieces have been preserved from a low literate society than from a highly literate one.

Mineral Writing Surfaces

Marble, Basalt & Bronze

Mineral writing surfaces include stone (e.g. marble) and metals (e.g. bronze). In the Greco-Roman world, such hard surfaces were used for recording laws, official decrees and international treaties because of their inalterable nature.

The Code of Hammurabi (lex talionis (eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth) is perhaps the most famous stele (stone or wooden slab) which comes down to us from ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia from about 1754 BC. Partial copies exist on a seven and a half foot Basalt stele and various clay tablets.

Discovered and translated in 1901, the code is inscribed in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script carved into the stele. It is currently on display in the Louvre, with exact replicas in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Clendening History of Medicine Library & Museum at the University of Kansas Medical Center, the library of the Theological University of the Reformed Churches (Dutch: Theologische Universiteit Kampen voor de Gereformeerde Kerken) in the Netherlands, the Pergamon Museum of Berlin, and the National Museum of Iran in Tehran.



The Pyrgi Tablets, found in a 1964 excavation of a sanctuary of ancient Pyrgi on the Tyrrhenian coast (west) of Italy, are three golden leaves that record a dedication made around 500 BC by Thefarie Velianas, king of Caere, to a Phoenician goddess. Two of the tablets are inscribed in the Etruscan language, the third in Phoenician.

These writings are important in providing both a bilingual text that allows researchers to use knowledge of Phoenician to interpret Etruscan, and evidence of Phoenician or Punic influence in the Western Mediterranean. The tablets are now held at the National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome.

Gold may be the most famous surface, after marble, but lead has also been popular. Lead is very malleable and relatively easy to turn it into thin plates that can be written on by scratching the plates with a hard and pointy instrument like an awl.


Apart from the  Damnation Tablets  we have, made of lead, a series of some 70 small codices of 7 or 8 leaden leaves, each written in Greek and Hebrew that were found not long ago in the Jordan desert near the borders with Israel and Syria. It is possible that these small codices date from the 1st or 2nd century A.D., but their authenticity has been contested.


From the Visigothic kingdom of Spain in the 6th and 7th century we have slate tablets written with a pointy and hard instrument. The exemplars preserved are not many, but some of them contain quite charming school exercises of writing and basic arithmetic.


All sort of domestic objects were recycled to receive writing. Among them all the ostraka deserve special attention. They are small  pottery  fragments on which the citizens of Athens voted who should be exiled from the city. From ostraka the present term ostracism derives.


Through out the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, clay tablets were used as a writing medium in the Ancient Near East, especially for writing in cuneiform. These clay documents formed the root of the world’s first libraries. Tens of thousands of written tablets, many admittedly fragments, have been found in the Middle East.


Walls have always been kind of a magnet for graffiti. From the 1st century BC to the 4th AD of Rome have come imprecations, accounts, names and all sorts of messages written on walls. Graffiti found in Pompey are especially famous.

Animal Writing Surfaces


From the animal kingdom, of course the wax is the first substance we think of. Wax was used together with shellac for the wax tablets. In 1980 archaeologists found on the coast of present Turkey a vessel, and in it a diptych of wax tablets, dating probably from the 14th century BC.

Bone, Shell & Silk

And together with the wax we must mention bone fragments, turtle shells and silk fabric, among others. As a matter of fact, the oldest witnesses of a sort of proto-signs have been found on ostrich egg shells. They come from South Africa and their age could reach to 100,000 years.


Animal hides are documented as writing support from 2700-2500 B.C in Egypt. A very well-known example of hides used for this purpose is the mathematical text now in the British Museum, Ms. 10250.

Vegetal Writing Surfaces

Tree Leaves & Bark

From the vegetal kingdom, tree leaves and bark have been used as writing support.

Palm & Bamboo

The palm leaf was used in old India for the pothi books and in China bamboo was adapted for the same purpose. Pliny refers, as well, to palm leaves as writing support  previous to the invention of papyrus .

Bark: Linden & Birch

As for tree bark we have only some allusions, mostly referred to the linden tree, whose inner layer, called liber, was thought to be very appropriate for receiving writing. From the word liber derives the word used for book in all Latin vernaculars.

Birch bark has served as support for writing in several cultures. The oldest witnesses are a collection of Buddhist manuscripts in the qandhari language found in Afganistan that were acquired by the British Library in 1994. From medieval times we have more fragments, this time coming from Russia, from the area of Nodgorov. The most curious is the writing practice of a 6 or 7 year old child called Onfim.


Wood has also been employed as writing support in many cultures. Plato mentions wooden tablets on where notes could be taken. We know that the Romans covered them with gypsum and then called them  tabulae dealbatae , and many centuries later Cenino Cenini described how to whiten fig tree wood boards with ground bone.

In 1986 two codices on wooden boards of some 2.5 mm thickness were found in the oasis of Dakhleh, in Egypt.
Also of wood are the so called tallies or tally sticks, which were used for book keeping from Sumerian times to the 18th century England.


And finally some textiles of vegetal origin were used as a support for writing.

The Etruscan had the so called  libri lintei , some of which are now preserved in the museum of Agram, and Rome knew the libri lintei magistratuum, on which the names of the magistrates were registered year by year, and the mappae lintae that is referred to by the Codex Theodosianus.

Regretfully not even a fragment has been preserved from these last ones.

Papyrus, Parchment & Paper.

The three materials that were deployed on a massive scale in Western Europe were, in chronological order, papyrus, parchment and paper.

And in chronological order these materials are papyrus, parchment and paper.