Meir Bar-Ilan

Though animal skins have been treated since paleolithic times, processing skins for writing is a relatively late development, postdating the invention of papyrus. Early evidence for using skins for writing comes from the 4th dynasty in Egypt, i.e., before 2750 BCE. However, this practice was limited to religious and other special purposes (such as the Book of the Dead). Though the Assyrians and the Babylonians wrote on clay tablets, they did write on parchment also, at least from the 6th century BCE onward.

In the hellenistic world, the parchment scroll was not known till the first century CE. Pliny quotes Varro's statement that skins preparation for writing was invented in Pergamon at the beginning of the second century BCE. Thus, at least as far as the Hellenistic world is concerned, the transition from papyrus to parchment may have been a matter of necessity, resulting from the Egyptian embargo on papyrus. The transition to parchment took place in the land of Israel as well, and the Jewish sages of the Roman period were of the opinion that any mention of a 'book' in the Bible exclusively refers to a parchment scroll. It is not impossible that the parchment surplus was caused by the influence of the hellenistic scribal culture on Judaism, as attested by the contemporary borrowing of over 20 book-culture Greek words, such as diphtera, duchsustos, tomos, tophos, and others.

Unlike papyrus, an imported product outside Egypt, the parchment was durable and inaccessible to forgery. In Egypt, where the low humidity and the relatively cost-saving production of papyrus outweighed these advantages, papyrus remained the substance of choice.


While papyrus production, the competitor of parchment as a writing material, remained with almost no changes for generations, the methods of skin preparation evolved in the course of time, only slightly differing from place to place. The skin was taken from edible animals such as sheep, goats, or cows, that is, very common raw material. In order to get a durable product that is easy to write upon, the unnecessary hair and the fat were removed and the skin was smoothed.

The usual method involved soaking the hide in water, to which were added calcium (Ca(oh) 2 ) or flour (to cause fermentation) and salt. An addition of tannin, made of oak-gall, produced an irreversible chemical reaction that strengthened the product. In the process, some used dates, while others used dog-dung - though not all the Jewish sages favored the latter. The raw skins were treated in different processes which led to a variety of the final product and to the different names, such as diphtera, gewil, and so forth.

A material called parchment, first mentioned in 301 BCE, is assumed to have been prepared by the people of Pergamon. The preparation was without tanning, so that the skin dried while being stretched. The final product was thin and very delicate.

The ancient preparation techniques were bequeathed to the Middle Ages but later were abandoned in favor of paper production. The manufactured paper in Europe (since 12th century Spain) especially after its development in the 16th-17th centuries, in the era of printing, turned parchment into a purely ceremonial or ritualistic product (as the modern Jewish Torah).

Scribal Technique

The scribe used two different types of pens. The first one, made of iron or wood, was stiff; the second, the kalamos, was much softer, being made of reed, and was used as a brush.

Ink was usually made out of lampblack mixed with the juice of plants, but the scribes discovered that by adding minerals they could vary and strengthen the dye, thus making it harder to erase the ink.

Different types of ink-wells, from the Pharonic period up to the Roman- Byzantian periods, have been found in Egypt, in the Land of Israel, in Jordan, and in various places in the Near East.

The Aramaic scribe, who wrote on clay tablets, used only black ink (for contrastive effect and convenience). The Jewish scribe of the Roman period sometimes used other colors, though religious tradition limited his writing on the Torah scroll to black only.


The electronic address of this file is:

last updated: December 4, 1995