10 Ways People Kept Records Before Paper

2 min read
  • Document & Records Management

Today, we live in a digital world, in which paper is quickly becoming an outdated source of records storage. But what about the days before paper?

Here are 10 ways people recorded information before paper and mass printing became available.

1. Bamboo

Chinese scholars wrote on bamboo stalks as long ago as 500 BCE. The scholars used small knives to scrape away mistakes. These knives became a symbol of political stature, as the owners had the power to change records.

2. Birch Bark

Birch bark manuscripts have been found in India, Russia and the Middle East. Birch bark was used in medieval Russia for school exercises, personal letters and business ledgers.

3. Bones and Shells

Ancient Chinese oracles used shell & bone fragments to predict future events. Oracles carved questions onto the bone or shell, then applied heat until it cracked. They interpreted the crack patterns as answers from deities.
These “oracle bones” date back to 1400 BCE & represent the earliest records of Chinese writing.

4. Clay Tablets

Cuneiform, one of the earliest writing systems, is often found on clay tablets. The first libraries consisted of clay tablet archives. Ancient Mediterranean civilizations used clay tablets for sophisticated accounting systems.

5. Ostraca

Ostraca, or broken pieces of pottery, are considered the “scrap paper” of ancient civilizations. Ancient Athenians used ostraca to cast votes when the government wanted to banish a citizen. This gave rise to the term “ostracize” which means to exile or banish.

6. Palm Leaves

Palm leaves were used in Southeast Asia as early as 1500 BCE. Scholars theorize that Southeast Asian scripts contain mostly rounded shapes because angular letters split and broke the palm leaves.

7. Papyrus

The oldest discovered papyrus scrolls date back to 2500 BCE. The word “paper” derives from the word “papyrus.” Papyrus was expensive to produce and became a monopolized resource in the city of Alexandria. It was often washed and reused to save money.

8. Parchment

Parchment is made from goat, sheep or cow skin. Its use as a writing medium was perfected in Pergamon (modern day Turkey) as a cheaper alternative to Egyptian papyrus.

9. Silk

Some of the earliest known manuscripts of I Ching and Tao te Ching exist on 2,000 year old silk. Silk manuscripts were used for philosophical, mathematical and military records in China.

10. Wax Tablets

Wax tablets were made of wood panels covered in soft wax. Entire tablets could be erased by melting the layer of wax, giving rise to the Latin expression “tabula rasa” or “clean slate.”

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