It is probably not an understatement to say that
the development of written language is one of the most significant
developments in human civilization. Writing marks the distinction
between history and prehistory, and early written documents are
extremely important to scholars in many fields, especially to those
who study history, linguistics, or ancient literature.
Papyrus, pen, and inkwell from ancient
The study of early written documents from around the time of the
Roman empire is known as papyrology, a term which refers
to the fact that most of these documents were written on a material
called papyrus (plural papyri). Papyrologists
study all manner of writing done by hand, including writing done
in ink or inscribed on wooden, lead, or waxed tablets. Although
papyrus was used as a writing material as early as 3000 BC and as
late as 1000 AD, papyrologists focus on the period beginning in
the 4th century BC, when the Greeks conquered Egypt, and ending
in the 7th century AD when the Arabs overtook the region.
Of course, writing occurred throughout the ancient world, but most
of the examples that survive today come from Egypt. Egypt's dry,
desert climate is ideal for the preservation of papyrus and other
materials. In rare cases, papyri have survived outside of the desert;
the Herculaneum papyri were carbonized during the eruption of Mt.
Vesuvius, ensuring their preservation but also badly damaging the
papyri. Other materials, such as wooden writing tablets, have survived
as far north as Britain, near Hadrian's Wall. However, the vast
majority of examples of writing from this time period come from
Egypt, where the influence of first Greek and later Roman rulers
created a unique blend of languages and cultures.
Continue on to learn about
the Languages and Scripts of Graeco-Roman Egypt