Ancient Writing Materials

From Issue: Discovery 3/1/2015

We live in a time when writing notes, typing letters, and printing books is very easy to do. If you want to write a note to someone, all you have to do is take a piece of paper from a notebook or pad, use an ink pen, pencil, or magic marker, and write until your hand hurts. Everything you need to write is at your fingertips. But how did people write letters or papers before pens, pencils, typewriters, or computers were invented? And what did they write on before paper was invented?


Can you imagine a schoolteacher asking her class to take out a clean piece of stone in order to take a spelling test? Yet, as silly as that sounds to us, flat slabs of rock probably were some of the first things used as “paper.” To write on these rock slabs, people used sharp pieces of metal or a hard stone. They would cut or engrave the words deep into the tablets of stone.

Moses used stone tablets for the Ten Commandments. We read in Exodus 34:1 that the Lord told him to “cut two tablets of stone.” Writing on stone was a way to ensure that the words were preserved for many generations.


Clay was another material ancient writers used. Clay had many qualities that made it a good writing material. For one, it was common and inexpensive. Also, it was easy to write on. When clay is moist, it is soft and can be engraved easily using a stone or stick. Once the clay dries, the words engraved in it become permanently set. Ezekiel mentioned a clay tablet in chapter 4, verse 1 of his book in the Old Testament. And many clay tablets—thousands of years old—have been found buried in the ground.

Popular Papyrus

Near shallow lakes and rivers grew a tall reed called papyrus. It especially grew by the Nile River in Egypt. The ancient people would harvest this hollow reed, slit it down the middle, and roll it out flat. Then they would take these reeds and glue them together. After gluing many of the reeds together, a rock was used to smooth the surface of the papyrus so that people could write on it just like paper.

Papyrus was one of the most popular ways to write and send messages. The sheets were glued into long pieces that were rolled into scrolls. The scrolls mentioned in Revelation 5:1 were most likely papyrus. The apostles and other New Testament writers probably used papyrus to write their original books.

Many other materials were used to write, record, and document the past. Wood, leather, bone, and shells are a few. But the ones mentioned in this article were some of the most popular forms of writing materials. The next time we pick up a sheet of paper and ballpoint pen, or sit down to type on a computer, let’s be thankful for the great progress that our ancestors made in the area of writing. And let’s be thankful that these ancient people had ways to preserve the Word of God.


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→