Originally, I planned to write a paper about the Herculaneum Scrolls but was side-tracked when I started reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Investigating further, I found information about so many other scrolls that I changed my mind – this paper concerns ancient scripts recorded aeons ago by civilisations worldwide, all with a purpose and most of them carefully and cleverly hidden.
The discovery of the Herculaneum scrolls has offered a unique and valuable glimpse into the intellectual life of the ancient world. The scrolls, which were preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, contain a wealth of philosophical, literary, and scientific texts that shed new light on the intellectual traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. This paper will examine the historical and cultural context in which the scrolls were written, analyse key texts from the scrolls, and discuss the significance of the scrolls for our understanding of the ancient world.
Title: Men splitting papyrus, Tomb of Puyemré; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Attribution: Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Scrolls and Codices 
A scroll (from the Old French escroe or escroue) is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or paper containing writing. The history of scrolls dates back to ancient Egypt. In most ancient literate cultures, scrolls were the earliest format for longer documents written in ink or paint on a flexible background, preceding bound books; rigid media such as clay tablets were also used but had many disadvantages in comparison. For most purposes, scrolls have long been superseded by the codex book format, but they are still produced for some ceremonial or religious purposes, notably for the Jewish Torah scroll for use in synagogues.
Scrolls were the first form of editable record-keeping texts used in Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilisations. Several early civilisations used parchment scrolls before the codex, or bound book with pages, was invented by the Romans and popularised by Christianity. Nevertheless, scrolls were more highly regarded than codices until well into Roman times.
The codex (plural codices) was the historical ancestor of the modern book. Instead of being composed of sheets of paper, it used sheets of vellum, papyrus, or other materials. The term codex is often used for ancient manuscript books with handwritten contents. A codex, much like the modern book, is bound by stacking the pages and securing one set of edges by a variety of methods over the centuries, yet in a form analogous to modern bookbinding.
The Significance of Ancient Scrolls
The significance of ancient scrolls lies in their ability to provide us with valuable information about the history, language, culture, and beliefs of past civilisations:
- First, ancient scrolls can provide us with insights into the daily life and customs of people in the past. For example, letters, diaries, and legal documents found in ancient scrolls can tell us about people’s relationships, social hierarchies, and legal systems.
- Secondly, ancient scrolls can help us understand the evolution and development of writing systems and literacy. By studying ancient scripts, we can see how writing evolved over time and how different civilisations used writing for different purposes, such as religious texts, historical records, and literature.
- Thirdly, ancient scrolls can provide us with information about the beliefs and practices of different religions and cultures. The sacred texts and religious artefacts found in ancient scrolls can give us insight into the beliefs, practices, and rituals of past civilisations.
- Fourthly, ancient scrolls can reveal the artistic and literary achievements of past civilisations. For example, ancient scrolls have been found that contain poetry, stories, and other forms of literature that offer insight into the artistic sensibilities and literary traditions of different cultures.
- Fifthly, ancient scrolls can shed light on the political and economic systems of past civilisations. For example, royal decrees, tax records, and trade agreements found in ancient scrolls can help us understand the political and economic structures of different societies.
- Sixthly, ancient scrolls can provide evidence of cultural exchange and influence between different civilisations. For example, the discovery of Sanskrit manuscripts in Central Asia has provided evidence of cultural dialogue between Indian and Central Asian cultures.
The significance of ancient scrolls lies in their ability to help us understand the rich and diverse history of human civilisation, providing us with glimpses into the lives, cultures, and beliefs of those who came before us.
Why were the scrolls written, and where are they now?
The reasons why the scrolls were written and their current locations depend on the specific collection of scrolls. Ancient scrolls have been discovered around the world, although the Herculaneum scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls are two of the most famous and significant collections. Here is a brief overview of some of the major collections of ancient scrolls and their purposes and locations:
- The Herculaneum Scrolls – The scrolls found in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, Italy, were likely written as part of a private library and may have been used for study and reference. They are primarily philosophical works, including texts by Epicurus, Philodemus, and other ancient Greek philosophers. The scrolls are currently housed at the National Library of Naples in Italy.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls – The Dead Sea Scrolls were likely written by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes and were found in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel. The scrolls include copies of the Hebrew Bible, as well as other religious and apocryphal texts. The scrolls were discovered in 1947 and are now housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Jordan Museum in Amman.
- The Nag Hammadi Library – The texts of the Nag Hammadi Library were likely written by Gnostic communities in Egypt and were discovered in the Nag Hammadi region in 1945. The texts include a wide range of religious and philosophical works, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip. The Nag Hammadi Library is currently housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
- The Archimedes Palimpsest – The Archimedes Palimpsest is a 10th century manuscript that contains previously unknown works by the Greek mathematician Archimedes. The manuscript was discovered in a library in Istanbul, Turkey, and is now housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
- The Oxyrhynchus Papyri – The Oxyrhynchus Papyri were discovered in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and include a wide range of texts, including literary works, letters, and legal documents. The papyri were likely produced for various purposes, including record-keeping, communication, and literary expression. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri include a wide range of texts in a collection of more than 500,000 papyrus fragments, including literary works, letters, and legal documents, and provide valuable insights into daily life in ancient Egypt. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are currently housed at the Sackler Library at the University of Oxford in England.
- The Cairo Geniza (alternatively spelt Genizah) – A collection of some 400,000 to 500,000 Jewish manuscript fragments and Fatimid administrative documents that were kept in the Genizah or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old Cairo, Egypt. These manuscripts span the entire period of Middle-Eastern, North African, and Andalusian Jewish history between the 6th and 19th centuries AD and comprise the largest and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world. The Genizah texts are written in various languages, especially Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, mainly on vellum and paper but also on papyrus and cloth. In addition to containing Jewish religious texts such as Biblical, Talmudic, and later Rabbinic works (some in the original hands of the authors), the Genizah gives a detailed picture of the economic and cultural life of the Mediterranean region, especially during the 10th to 13th centuries. Manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza are now dispersed among a number of libraries.
- The Book of Kells – This is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban monastery in either Ireland, Scotland or
England and may have had contributions from various Columban institutions from some or all of these areas. It is believed to have been created c. 800 AD.
The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate Bible, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is regarded as a masterwork of Western calligraphy and the pinnacle of Insular illumination. The manuscript is in Trinity College Library, Dublin, which usually has on display at any given time two of the four volumes it is now divided into, open to show a major illustration from one and a typical text page from the other, rotated frequently. A digitised version of the entire manuscript may also be seen online.
Each of the above was written for various purposes, including religious, philosophical, literary, and practical. They provide valuable insights into the intellectual and cultural life of ancient societies and continue to be an important area of study for scholars and enthusiasts of the ancient world.
What was the ‘Intellectual Aspect of Life’ of the Ancient World?
The intellectual life of the ancient world was characterised by a vibrant tradition of philosophical, scientific, and literary inquiry that spanned the ancient Greek and Roman worlds.
In ancient Greece, philosophy was a highly respected and influential field of study, with major figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle developing complex and sophisticated systems of thought. Philosophy was not only an academic pursuit but also played an important role in shaping Greek society and politics.
Science was also a significant aspect of intellectual life in ancient Greece, with important contributions made in fields such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Greek scholars such as Euclid, Pythagoras, and Hippocrates made ground breaking discoveries and developed foundational theories that would influence Western science for centuries that followed.
In ancient Rome, literary and artistic pursuits were highly valued, and poets such as Virgil and Ovid wrote epic poems that celebrated the history and mythology of Rome. Philosophy was also an important field of study in Rome, with major figures such as Cicero and Seneca developing philosophical systems that synthesised elements of both Greek and Roman thought.
Overall, the intellectual life of the ancient world was characterized by a rich and diverse array of fields of study and modes of inquiry. Philosophy, science, literature, and the arts all played important roles in shaping the intellectual landscape of the ancient world and continue to influence Western thought and culture to this day.
Philosophy was a highly respected and influential field of study in ancient Greece, with major figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle developing complex systems of thought that explored fundamental questions about the nature of reality, morality, and the human condition. These philosophical ideas were not just theoretical academic pursuits but also significantly impacted Greek society and politics.
Philosophy, science, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and the arts were important aspects of intellectual life in ancient Greece and Rome. For example:
- Pythagoras developed the Pythagorean theorem, while Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine for his work on medical theory and practice.
- In philosophy, there is Plato’s theory of Forms, Aristotle’s concept of the Golden Mean, and the Stoic philosophy of Epictetus.
- In science and astronomy, there is Archimedes’ principle or Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe
- In the arts, there are the plays of Sophocles and the sculpture of Phidias.
The intellectual life of the ancient world was closely intertwined with the broader social, political, and cultural contexts in which it developed. Philosophical ideas, scientific discoveries, and literary and artistic achievements were not developed in a vacuum but were shaped and influenced by the religious beliefs, political systems, and cultural values of ancient societies.
For example, ancient Greek and Roman religious beliefs and practices were important in shaping intellectual inquiry. Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato believed in the existence of a divine realm that could be accessed through reason and contemplation, while Roman thinkers such as Cicero saw philosophy as a means of connecting with the divine. Similarly, the political context of ancient societies influenced the development of philosophy, science, and the arts. For instance, the rise of democracy in ancient Athens created an environment in which philosophical and artistic expression flourished, while the imperial ambitions of ancient Rome fostered the development of monumental public works and epic literature.
The legacy of ancient intellectual achievements also continues to influence modern Western thought and culture. Ancient Greek and Roman ideas about democracy, ethics, and the natural world have shaped modern political and philosophical thought. The legacy of ancient science can be seen in modern scientific inquiry, and the literary and artistic achievements of the ancient world continue to inspire contemporary creative works.
The intellectual life of the ancient world was a dynamic and multifaceted aspect of ancient society that played a significant role in shaping the values, beliefs, and practices of past civilisations and continues to influence modern Western thought and culture.
Why were Scrolls made and then hidden?
What prompted the ancients to make scrolls and then hide them, and what were they hoping to achieve?
The exact reasons for hiding scrolls in ancient times may have been complex and multifaceted and likely varied depending on the specific context and culture. The ancient practice of creating and hiding scrolls was likely driven by various reasons depending on the particular culture and time period. Possible motivations include:
- Preservation of knowledge: Before the invention of the printing press, written materials were typically produced by hand, making them more scarce and valuable. By creating scrolls and hiding them in places such as tombs, ancient people may have been attempting to preserve important knowledge or cultural artefacts for future generations.
- Protection from theft: In some cases, hiding scrolls may have been a way to protect them from theft or destruction by invaders or rival groups.
- Spiritual or religious beliefs: Many ancient cultures believed in the power of sacred texts or objects. Hiding scrolls in special locations such as temples or shrines may have been seen as a way to protect them from harm or to ensure their mystical power was not misused.
- Secrecy: Some scrolls were created for specific groups or individuals and were not intended to be shared with the general public. In these cases, hiding the scrolls may have been a way to keep them secret and prevent unauthorised access.
The discovery of ancient scrolls has provided scholars and historians with a window into the lives and cultures of the past. From the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Herculaneum papyri, these fragile documents contain valuable information about the history, language, and customs of ancient civilisations. Studying these scrolls has shed light on the beliefs and practices of long-forgotten peoples and has even led to new insights into the development of writing and literacy in human civilisation. In this paper, I will explore the significance of ancient scrolls, their history, and their impact on our understanding of the past.
The Herculaneum Scrolls
Title: Herculaneum plan showing the ancient site below the modern (1908) town and the 1631 “lava” flow
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The Herculaneum papyri are more than 1,800 papyri found in the
Herculaneum Villa of the Papyri in the 18th century was carbonised by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The papyri, containing many Greek philosophical texts, come from the only surviving library from antiquity that exists in its entirety. As many as 44 of the works discovered were written by the Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemus.
The Herculaneum papyri are a collection of ancient manuscripts discovered in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The manuscripts were found in the Villa of the Papyri, owned by a wealthy Roman named Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus.
The manuscripts are written on papyrus scrolls, which were carbonised by the intense heat of the eruption, and as a result, the texts are extremely fragile and difficult to read. The papyri were first discovered in the mid-18th century and were initially mistaken for charcoal or burned wood. It was not until the 20th century that new techniques were developed, allowing the papyri to be unrolled and read.
The Herculaneum papyri are primarily philosophical works and include texts by Epicurus, Philodemus, and other ancient Greek philosophers. They also include several previously unknown works, including lost works by Aristotle and other ancient writers.
The process of unrolling and deciphering the papyri has been slow and painstaking, and only a small percentage of the papyri have been successfully read and translated. Many of the scrolls are still in a fragile state and require further conservation efforts to preserve them for future generations. Despite these challenges, the Herculaneum papyri represent an important and unique window into the intellectual life of the ancient world.
The Herculaneum papyri are considered to be some of the most important surviving texts from the ancient world, offering valuable insights into the philosophical and literary traditions of the Greco-Roman world. The texts include works by many well-known authors, including the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, whose writings were highly influential in the ancient world but whose works had been largely lost to history before the discovery of the papyri.
One of the most significant discoveries from the Herculaneum papyri is the treatise “On the Nature of Things” by the philosopher Epicurus. Previously, the only surviving copy of this work was a heavily redacted version preserved in a poem by the Roman poet Lucretius. The discovery of a more complete version of the text in the Herculaneum papyri has shed new light on Epicurean philosophy and has allowed scholars to understand the teachings of this important philosopher better.
Title: An eruption of Vesuvius seen from Portici, by Joseph Wright (ca. 1774–6)
Attribution: Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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The unrolling and deciphering of the Herculaneum papyri has been a slow and difficult process due to the fragile state of the scrolls. In the early 21st century, a new technique called X-ray phase-contrast tomography was developed that allowed researchers to read the papyri without unrolling them, which has helped to preserve them for future generations.
Despite the challenges involved in deciphering and preserving the Herculaneum papyri, they continue to be a valuable resource for scholars studying the ancient world. The texts offer a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual life of ancient Rome and Greece, and have the potential to shed new light on a wide range of historical and philosophical topics.
Who wrote the Scrolls, when, and why?
The authors of the Herculaneum papyri were primarily ancient Greek philosophers, and the texts were likely written between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD. The texts were found in the Villa of the Papyri, which was owned by the wealthy Roman Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, and it is believed that the manuscripts were part of his personal library.
The Herculaneum papyri include a wide range of philosophical and literary texts, many of which were previously unknown or had been lost to history, making their discovery at Herculaneum an important contribution to our understanding of the ancient world. It is believed that the texts were written and preserved for the same reasons that many ancient works were written and preserved: to share knowledge and ideas, to contribute to ongoing philosophical debates, and to preserve important works for future generations. The Villa of the Papyri, where the manuscripts were found, was known for its impressive library, and it is likely that the texts in the Herculaneum papyri were considered valuable works of literature and philosophy in their time.
What do the texts say?
The texts of the Herculaneum papyri cover a wide range of topics, including philosophy, literature, and science. Many texts are philosophical treatises, including works by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus, who wrote extensively on ethics, politics, and rhetoric. Other texts include works by the philosopher Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, and the philosopher Chrysippus, who was a major figure in the development of Stoicism.
One of the most significant discoveries from the Herculaneum papyri is the treatise “On the Nature of Things” (De rerum natura) by the philosopher Epicurus. This work provides an in-depth exploration of Epicurean philosophy, emphasising the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the key to a happy life. The text also includes important discussions of the nature of the universe, the existence of gods, and the role of reason in human life. In addition to philosophical works, the Herculaneum papyri include literary texts, including works by the Greek poet Pindar and the playwright and dramatist Menander. There are also scientific texts, including a work on botany by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school.
To sum up, the Herculaneum papyri provide a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual life of the ancient world and have the potential to shed new light on a wide range of historical and philosophical topics.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls (aka the Qumran Caves Scrolls) is a collection of Jewish texts discovered in the mid-20th century near Ein Feshkha in the West Bank, on the northern shore of the Dead Sea. The scrolls were found in 11 caves near the ancient site of Qumran, and they are believed to have been written by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the area during the Second Temple period (roughly the second century BC to the first century AD).
Title: Dead Sea Scroll 175, Testimonia, from Qumran Cave 4. The Jordan Museum, Amman
Attribution: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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The texts include religious writings, historical records, and community rule documents, as well as secular texts like poetry, letters, and legal documents. Among the most significant scrolls are copies of the Hebrew Bible, including fragments of every book of the Old Testament except for Esther. The scrolls also contain previously unknown writings that shed light on the beliefs, practices, and culture of the Essenes.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be a keystone in the history of archaeology with great historical, religious, and linguistic significance because they include the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons, along with deuterocanonical and extra-biblical manuscripts which preserve evidence of the diversity of religious thought in late Second Temple Judaism. At the same time, they cast new light on the emergence of Christianity and of Rabbinic Judaism.
Most of the scrolls are held by Israel in the Shrine of the Book at the
Israel Museum in Jerusalem, but their ownership is disputed by Jordan due to the Qumran Caves’ history: following the End of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1947, Jordan occupied the area in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War and Israel captured both the area and several Scrolls from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. However, some scrolls are still in Jordan and are now displayed at The Jordan Museum in Amman. Ownership of the scrolls is also contested by the State of Palestine.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was a significant event in the field of biblical studies and has had a major impact on our understanding of Judaism and Christianity in the Second Temple period. Scholars have studied the scrolls extensively, and many texts have been translated into modern languages.
The scrolls are stored in climate-controlled environments and are available for public viewing. However, due to their fragile nature, the scrolls are not on permanent display and are rotated periodically.
The Herculaneum Scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls compared
The Herculaneum scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls are two of the most important collections of ancient manuscripts ever discovered, but they differ in several significant ways.
One of the main differences between the two collections is their origin and preservation. The Herculaneum scrolls were preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which carbonised the papyrus scrolls and preserved them, albeit in a fragile and often difficult-to-read state. The Dead Sea Scrolls, on the other hand, were preserved in clay jars in the dry climate of the Judean Desert and were found in a more complete and legible state.
Another key difference between the two collections is their content. While both the Herculaneum scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls include works of literature and philosophy, the Dead Sea Scrolls are primarily Jewish religious texts that date from the Second Temple period (roughly 530 BC to 70 AD). They include copies of the Hebrew Bible and other religious and apocryphal texts. The Herculaneum scrolls, on the other hand, include works by ancient Greek philosophers such as Epicurus, Philodemus, and Zeno, as well as literary texts and scientific treatises.
The language of the scrolls is also a significant difference between the two collections. The Dead Sea Scrolls are written primarily in Hebrew and Aramaic, while the Herculaneum scrolls are written in ancient Greek.
While both the Herculaneum scrolls and the Dead Sea Scrolls are significant and valuable collections of ancient manuscripts, they differ in their origin, preservation, content, and language.
The Significance of Ancient Scrolls
The significance of ancient scrolls lies in their ability to provide valuable information about the history, language, culture, and beliefs of past civilisations.
Ancient scrolls have played a critical role in shaping our understanding of the past by providing insights into the daily lives and customs of people in ancient times, as well as their beliefs and practices. These texts offer a window into the languages and writing systems of ancient cultures and can provide unique perspectives on the development of writing and literacy.
Ancient scrolls also contain valuable historical records that document significant events, people, and societies, which can help us piece together a more complete understanding of the past. Additionally, ancient scrolls often serve as primary sources for scholars in various fields, including history, archaeology, linguistics, and religious studies.
The significance of ancient scrolls lies in their ability to deepen our understanding of the past and to provide valuable insights into the diverse cultures and societies of previous eras.
The Challenges of Studying Ancient Scrolls
Studying ancient scrolls presents several challenges for scholars and researchers. These challenges can arise from various factors, including the age and fragility of the scrolls, the complexity of the languages and scripts used, and the cultural and historical contexts in which the scrolls were created.
One of the main challenges of studying ancient scrolls is the physical condition of the scrolls themselves. Many ancient scrolls are thousands of years old and have been subjected to various environmental factors, such as exposure to moisture, heat, and light. As a result, the scrolls may be fragile and prone to damage, and in some cases, may have even been partially destroyed over time. This can make it difficult to read and interpret the content of the scrolls and can require special preservation techniques to ensure their continued existence.
Another challenge of studying ancient scrolls is the complexity of the languages and scripts used. Many ancient scrolls are written in languages and scripts that are no longer in use, making them difficult for modern scholars to decipher. For example, the Herculaneum papyri are written in a form of ancient Greek that is not widely understood, and the Voynich Manuscript is written in an unknown script that has yet to be fully deciphered.
In addition to these linguistic challenges, studying ancient scrolls also requires a deep understanding of the cultural and historical contexts in which the scrolls were created.
Many ancient scrolls contain references to historical events, religious beliefs, and cultural practices no longer familiar to modern scholars. As a result, interpreting the content of these scrolls can require a great deal of background knowledge and expertise in the relevant cultural and historical contexts. Despite these challenges, studying ancient scrolls remains an important and rewarding pursuit.
The authenticity of the ancient scrolls that have been discovered has been the subject of ongoing scholarly debate, as well as scientific and forensic investigation. In general, most experts consider the scrolls to be authentic, but some issues have raised questions about their authenticity.
One issue with the authenticity of some scrolls is the possibility of forgeries or fraudulent additions. For example, some of the texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls have been identified as modern forgeries, while other texts are composite works that were likely compiled from multiple sources.
Another issue is the condition of the scrolls themselves. Many of the scrolls have been damaged by centuries of exposure to the elements, making them difficult to read and interpret. Additionally, some of the scrolls have been reconstructed from fragments, which raises questions about the accuracy of the reconstruction process.
In spite of these issues, most scholars agree that most of the ancient scrolls discovered are authentic and provide valuable insights into the intellectual, cultural, and social life of ancient societies. In recent years, advances in scientific and forensic techniques have made it possible to analyze the scrolls in new ways, which has helped to confirm their authenticity further and shed new light on their contents and significance.
Listing of Discoveries of Sacred Scrolls, Scripts and Texts
The following ancient scripts and scrolls (in alphabetical order) are examples of the rich and diverse history of writing and literacy in human civilisation:
- Ancient Greek alphabet: An alphabet used by the ancient Greeks, dating from the 8th century BC to the present day. The Greek alphabet has significantly impacted Western culture and is still used in Greece and other parts of the world.
- Ancient Hebrew script: An alphabet used for writing Hebrew, a language used by the ancient Hebrews and the Jewish people, dating from the 10th century BC to the 2nd century AD. The script played an important role in the development of Jewish religion, literature, and culture.
- Archimedes Palimpsest: Discovered in a library in Istanbul, Turkey, in the early 20th century; dating from the 10th century AD; contents include previously unknown works by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes.
- Avesta: A collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian religion; dating from the 2nd millennium BC to the 10th century AD; contents include hymns, prayers, and rituals.
- Balinese script: An alphabet used for writing Balinese, a language spoken in present-day Bali, Indonesia, dating from the 9th century AD to the present day. The script played an important role in the development of Balinese literature and culture.
- The Book of Kells – This is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban monastery in either Ireland, Scotland
or England and may have had contributions from various Columban institutions from some or all of these areas. It is believed to have been created c. 800 AD.
- Book of the Dead: A collection of ancient Egyptian funerary texts; dating from the 16th century BC to the 11th century BC; contents include spells and rituals intended to help the deceased navigate the afterlife.
- Brahmi script: An ancient script used in India, dating from the 3rd century BC to the 6th century AD. The script was used for writing various Indian languages, including Sanskrit, and played an important role in the development of Indian literature and culture.
- Buddhist Gandharan Scrolls: Discovered in Pakistan in the 1990s; dating from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD; contents include Buddhist sutras and other religious texts.
- Cairo Genizah: A collection of Jewish documents and manuscripts discovered in a synagogue in Cairo; dating from the 10th to the 19th centuries AD; contents include religious texts, legal documents, and letters.
- Cretan hieroglyphs: A hieroglyphic script used on Crete, dating from about 1700 BC to 1450 BC. The script is still largely undeciphered, and the language it represents is unknown.
- Cuneiform: A script used by several ancient civilisations in the Near East, including the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians.
- Dead Sea Scrolls: Discovered in the mid-20th century in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel; dating from the 2nd or 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD; contents include copies of the Hebrew Bible, apocryphal texts, and other religious and historical writings.
- Dongba script: A pictographic script used by the Naxi people of China, dating from the 7th century CE to the present day. The script is used for writing Naxi language and religious texts, and is an important part of Naxi culture and heritage.
- Early Cyrillic script: An alphabet used for writing Old Church Slavonic, a liturgical language used in the Orthodox Church, dating from the 9th century AD to the 12th century AD. The script has played an important role in the spread of Christianity and Slavic culture.
- Epi-Olmec script: A hieroglyphic script used by the Olmec civilisation in present-day Mexico, dating from about 500 BC to 200 BC. The script is still largely undeciphered and the language it represents is unknown.
- Etruscan Gold Book: A collection of gold foil sheets discovered in a tomb in Bulgaria in 2004; dating from the 6th century BC; contents are still being studied and analysed.
- Etruscan script: An alphabet used by the Etruscan civilisation in ancient Italy from about the 8th century BC to the 3rd century BC. The script is still not fully deciphered, but it has provided important insights into Etruscan language and culture.
- Gospel of Judas: Discovered in Egypt in the 1970s; dating from the 2nd century AD; contents include an alternative version of the story of Judas Iscariot and his role in the crucifixion of Jesus.
- Gospel of Mary: A Gnostic gospel discovered in Egypt in the late 19th century and dating from the 2nd century CE; contents include a dialogue between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
- Gospel of Thomas: A Gnostic gospel discovered in Egypt in 1945 and dating from the 2nd century AD; contents include a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus.
- Herculaneum Scrolls: Discovered in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, Italy, in the 18th century; dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD; contents include works by ancient Greek philosophers such as Epicurus, Philodemus, and Zeno.
- Hieroglyphics: A script used by the ancient Egyptians featuring pictorial symbols and characters.
- Indus script: An ancient script used by the Indus Valley Civilization, which existed in present-day Pakistan and India from about 2600 BC to 1900 BC. The script is still undeciphered but appears to have been used for record-keeping and possibly for religious or ritual purposes. Some progress has been made in recent years towards understanding the script. For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Science Advances proposed a possible connection between the script and a Dravidian language.
- Jurchen script: An alphabet used by the Jurchen people, who lived in what is now present-day China and surrounding areas, dating from the 12th century CE to the 17th century AD. The script is still largely undeciphered and the language it represents is extinct.
- Kharosthi script: An alphabet used in ancient Gandhara (present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan), dating from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD. The script was used for writing the Gandhari language and is important for understanding the history and culture of the region.
- Khitan large script: A script used by the Khitan people, a nomadic tribe that ruled over northern China and parts of Mongolia in the 10th and 12th centuries AD. The script is still largely undeciphered and the language it represents is unknown.
- Linear A: A script used by the Minoan civilisation on the island of Crete, dating from about 1800 BC to 1450 BC. The script is still undeciphered, and the language it represents is unknown.
- Linear B script: An ancient script used by the Mycenaean Greeks, primarily for record-keeping, dating from about 1400 BC to 1200 BC. The script was deciphered in the mid-20th century and provides important insights into Mycenaean language, culture, and society.
- Linear C script: An ancient script used by the Mycenaean Greeks, primarily for record-keeping and administrative purposes, dating from about 1200 BC to 1100 BC. The script is still largely undeciphered, and the language it represents is unknown.
- Linear D script: An ancient script used by the Dorians, a group of ancient Greeks, dating from the 12th century BC to the 9th century BC. The script is still largely undeciphered, and the language it represents is unknown.
- Linear E script: An ancient script used by the Mycenaean Greeks, primarily for record-keeping and administrative purposes, dating from about 1300 BC to 1200 BC. The script is still largely undeciphered, and the language it represents is unknown.
- Linear Elamite: A script used in ancient Elam, located in present-day Iran, dating from about 2600 BC to 539 BC. The script is still largely undeciphered but has provided some insights into Elamite language and culture.
- Mandaic script: An alphabet used by the Mandaeans, an ancient Gnostic religious group in present-day Iraq and Iran, dating from the 2nd century AD to the present day. The script is used for writing the Mandaic language, which is still spoken by a small number of people today.
- Maya hieroglyphics: A hieroglyphic script used by the Maya civilisation in Mesoamerica, dating from about 300 BC to 900 AD. The script was used for writing various Maya languages and is important for understanding the history and culture of the Maya.
- Maya script: A hieroglyphic script used by the Maya civilisation in present-day Mexico and Central America from about 300 BC to the 16th century AD. The Maya script was largely undeciphered until the 20th century, but now it is largely deciphered and provides valuable insights into Maya history, culture, and mythology.
- Meroitic script: A hieroglyphic and alphabetic script used by the Kingdom of Kush in ancient Sudan, dating from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD. The script has been partially deciphered and provides important insights into Meroitic language and culture.
- Nabataean script: An ancient script used by the Nabataeans, an Arab tribe that lived in present-day Jordan, dating from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD. The script was used for writing Aramaic and is important for understanding the history and culture of the region.
- Nag Hammadi Library: Discovered in Egypt in 1945; dating from the 2nd century AD to the 4th century AD; contents include Gnostic texts and other religious and philosophical writings.
- Nüshu script: A script used exclusively by women in a small region of southern China, dating from the 13th century AD to the present day. The script was used for writing poetry and personal letters and is an important part of the cultural heritage of the region.
- Ogham script: An alphabet used by the ancient Celts in Ireland and other parts of Europe, dating from the 4th century CE to the 7th century AD. The script was used for writing Irish and other Celtic languages (primarily for inscriptions on stone and wood) and played an important role in Celtic mythology and culture.
- Old Chinese script: A logographic script used for writing Chinese characters in ancient China, dating from the 2nd millennium BC to the 3rd century AD. The script evolved over time and has had a major impact on Chinese culture, history, and literature.
- Old Hungarian script: An alphabet used by the Magyars, the ethnic group that would become the Hungarians, dating from the 10th century CE to the 16th century AD. The script played an important role in the development of the Hungarian language and culture.
- Old Italic script: An alphabet used in ancient Italy, dating from the 8th century BC to the 1st century AD. The script was used for writing the languages of various Italic peoples, including the Etruscans and the Umbrians.
- Old Kannada script: An ancient script used for writing Kannada, a language spoken in present-day southern India, dating from the 3rd century BC to the 10th century AD. The script played an important role in developing Kannada literature and culture.
- Old Khmer script: An ancient script used for writing Khmer, the language of the Khmer Empire in present-day Cambodia, dating from the 7th century AD to the 16th century AD. The script played an important role in the development of Khmer literature and culture.
- Old Norse runes: An alphabet used by the Norse and other Germanic peoples in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, dating from the 2nd century CE to the 12th century AD. The runes were used for writing various Germanic languages and played an important role in Norse mythology and culture.
- Old Persian cuneiform: A script used by the Persian Empire in ancient Iran, dating from the 6th century BC to the 4th century BC. The script was used for record-keeping, administrative documents, and royal inscriptions.
- Old Turkic Orkhon script: An alphabet used by the Göktürks, an ancient Turkic people who lived in present-day Mongolia and surrounding areas, dating from the 8th to the 10th centuries AD. The script played an important role in the development of the Turkic languages and cultures.
- Old Turkic script: An alphabet used by the early Turkic peoples, dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries AD. The script was used for writing Turkic languages and played an important role in spreading the Turkic peoples and their cultures.
- Old Uyghur script: An alphabet used by the Uyghurs, a Turkic people who lived in present-day Xinjiang, China and surrounding areas, dating from the 8th to the 15th centuries AD. The script was used for writing Uyghur and other Turkic languages and played an important role in developing Uyghur culture.
- Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Discovered in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; dating from the 3rd century BC to the 7th century AD; contents include literary works, letters, legal documents, and other written materials.
- Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: A Greek-language travelogue dating from the 1st century CE that describes trade routes and markets along the Red Sea and Indian Ocean coasts.
- Phaistos Disc: An enigmatic disc with unknown script and purpose, discovered on Crete and dating from about 1700 BC. The script on the disc remains undeciphered, and its origin, meaning, and function continue to be debated among scholars.
- Phoenician script: An alphabet used by the Phoenicians, dating from the 11th to the 1st centuries BC. The script was widely used for writing throughout the Mediterranean and served as the basis for many other ancient alphabets, including Greek and Latin.
- Proto-Elamite script: A script used in ancient Elam, located in present-day Iran, dating from about 3200 BC to 2700 BC. The script is still largely undeciphered, and the language it represents is unknown.
- Rongorongo script: A hieroglyphic script used on Easter Island, dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries AD. The script is still largely undeciphered and its purpose and meaning remain a subject of debate among scholars.
- Seikilos Epitaph: A Greek song inscription on a tombstone dating from the 1st century AD, with lyrics and music notation.
- Sogdian script: An alphabet used by the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian living in what is now present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and surrounding areas, dating from the 4th to the 10th centuries AD. The script was used for writing Sogdian, an Iranian language, and played an important role in spreading Buddhism and other religions.
- Sumerian King List: A cuneiform tablet dating from the 3rd millennium BC; contents include a list of the kings of Sumer, one of the earliest known civilisations.
- Tangut script: An alphabet used by the Tangut people, who lived in present-day China from the 10th to the 13th centuries AD. The script is still largely undeciphered and the language it represents is extinct.
- Tărtăria tablets: A group of three tablets discovered in Romania, dating from about 5300 BC to 4000 BC. The tablets contain symbols that may be the earliest known form of writing in Europe, although their meaning and purpose remain a subject of debate among scholars.
- Tifinagh script: An alphabet used by the Berber people in North Africa, dating from the 3rd century BC to the present day. The script was used for writing the Berber languages and has evolved over time to include additional letters and diacritical marks.
- Turin Erotic Papyrus: An Egyptian papyrus dating from the Ramesside Period (circa 1184-1077 BC) and featuring erotic scenes and love poetry.
These and other ancient scripts and scrolls have contributed significantly to the development of writing and literacy in human history and continue to provide valuable insights into the languages, cultures, and societies of the past.
It should be noted that some of the descriptions provided for the scripts and texts may be oversimplified or incomplete, as each script and text has its own unique history and significance. Also, you will note that there are several scripts with the description “linear”, for which a few words of explanation are required:
- The term “linear” distinguishes these scripts from other ancient writing systems used at the time.
- Linear A and Linear B were used in ancient Greece (Linear A was specifically used by the Minoan civilisation on the island of Crete).
- Linear B was deciphered by Michael Ventris in the mid-20th century and was found to represent an early form of Greek. Linear C, D and E are also believed to have been used in Greece, but they remain largely undeciphered, and the languages they represent are unknown.
Worthy of Mention
Title: “Code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, 1792 – 50 BC (5)” by Prof. Mortel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Although they do not strictly fall directly in the description of ancient Scripts, Scrolls and Texts, I should mention the Code of Hammurabi and the Library of Ashburnipal.
The Code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi is a Babylonian legal text composed c. 1755–1750 BC. It is the longest, best-organised, and best-preserved legal text from the ancient Near East. It is written in the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, purportedly by Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Dynasty of Babylon. The primary copy of the text is inscribed on a basalt stele 2.25 m (7 ft 4+1⁄2 in) tall.
The Library of Ashurbanipal 
The Library of Ashurbanipal was established in the 7th century BC in the ancient city of Nineveh, located in present-day Iraq. The last great king of the Assyrian Empire, Ashurbanipal, set up the library, which was created as a collection of texts and texts of knowledge and was one of the first libraries in the world. It contained many texts, including literature, history, law, medicine, astronomy, and divination. Many texts were written in cuneiform script on clay tablets, and it is considered one of the most important finds of cuneiform texts. The library was also used as a centre for scholarly research and education. Unfortunately, the library was destroyed by fire during the fall of the Assyrian Empire in 612 BC, but many of the clay tablets survived. In his Outline of History, HG Wells
called the library “the most precious source of historical material in the world.”
Ancient scrolls are significant resources that offer invaluable insights into the history, culture, and beliefs of past civilisations. They provide scholars with a window into the daily lives, customs, and languages of ancient peoples and can serve as primary sources for various fields, including history, archaeology, linguistics, and religious studies.
However, studying ancient scrolls also poses several challenges, including the physical condition of, for example, the scrolls themselves, the complexity of the languages and scripts used, and the cultural and historical contexts in which the scrolls were created. Scholars need to possess specialised skills, knowledge, and tools to overcome these challenges and fully interpret the content of these ancient texts. Despite these challenges, studying ancient scrolls remains a crucial and rewarding pursuit that helps deepen our understanding of the past and the diverse cultures and societies of previous eras. With continued preservation efforts and advancements in technology, we can look forward to uncovering even more valuable information from ancient scrolls in the future.
Title: Roman portraiture fresco of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century AD.
Attribution: Olivierw, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Busto_maschile.JPG
Sources and Further Reading
- E-Book: The Dead Sea Scrolls – Past, Present and Future: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/the_dead_sea_scrolls_past_present_and_future.pdf
- The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of Matthew, Paperback, by J. Rodney Taylor (Author), published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2019), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-Sea-Scrolls-Gospel-Matthew/dp/172979131X/
- The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English Paperback, Illustrated, by Dr Geza Vermes (Translator), published by Penguin Classics (2011), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-Scrolls-English-Penguin-Classics/dp/0141197315/
- The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran: The Essene Record of the Treasure of Akhenaten, Paperback – Illustrated, by Robert Feather (Author), published by Bear & Company (2003), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mystery-Copper-Scroll-Qumran-Akhenaten/dp/1591430143/
- Buried by Vesuvius – The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum (Getty Publications), Hardcover, by Kenneth Lapatin (Author), published by Yale University Press (2019, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Buried-Vesuvius-Villa-Papiri-Herculaneum/dp/1606065920/
- Revealing letters in rolled Herculaneum Papyri, at: https://youtu.be/JlWJ68DJGM0
- Rare ancient scroll found in Israel Cave of Horror – BBC News, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY6mcHUFjcg
- Reading the Herculaneum Papyri at: https://youtu.be/g-7-Xg75CCI
- EDUCE: Imaging the Herculaneum Scrolls, at: https://youtu.be/PpNq2cFotyY
- Watch Archaeologists Solve The Mystery of Ancient Scrolls, at: https://youtu.be/5–BTtNC_9Q
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End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scroll and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scrolls ↑
- Sources: Beal, Peter. (2008) “scroll” in A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000 Online edition. Oxford University Press, 2008. http://www.oxfordreference.com Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scrolls ↑
- Sources: “Chapter 4. Literate Performances and Literate Government”, History and the Written Word, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 74–90, 2020-12-31, ISBN 978-0-8122-9676-1, S2CID 242324088 Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scrolls ↑
- Sources: Murray, Stuart A. P. (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. Skyhorse Publishing. p. 46. ISBN 9781602397064. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scrolls ↑
- Sources: “Codex”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_scrolls ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cairo_Geniza ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Kells ↑
- At: https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/collections/ks65hc20t?locale=en ↑
- Explanation: The Essenes were a mystic Jewish sect during the Second Temple period that flourished from the 2nd century BC to the 1st century AD. The Jewish historian Josephus records that Essenes existed in large numbers; thousands lived throughout Roman Judaea. They were fewer in number than the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the other two major sects at the time. The Essenes lived in various cities but congregated in communal life dedicated to voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and asceticism (their priestly class practiced celibacy). Most scholars claim they seceded from the Zadokite priests. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essenes ↑
- Source: Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: a living history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. pp. 51–53. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls ↑
- Explanation: Zeno of Elea (c. 495 – c. 430 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher of Magna Graecia and a member of the Eleatic School founded by Parmenides. Plato and Aristotle called him the inventor of the dialectic. He is best known for his paradoxes. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno_of_Elea ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Kells ↑
- Explanation: The Dravidian language is a family of 24 languages indigenous to and spoken principally in South Asia by more than 214 million people. Four of the Dravidian languages are among the major literary languages of southern India—Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dravidian_languages ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_of_Hammurabi ↑
- Source: The Martin Pollins Blog at: https://martinpollins.com/2023/04/04/the-library-of-ashurbanipal-the-worlds-oldest-organised-library/ ↑
- Source: Wells, H. G. (1961). The Outline of History: Volume 1. Doubleday. p. 177. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Ashurbanipal ↑publications/papyri