Writing Materials part 2 – Parchment and Vellum

Writing Materials part 1 – Papyrus
January 31, 2019
Writing Materials part 3 – Palimpsest
February 14, 2019

What kind of materials are the handwritten manuscripts of the Bible written on?

In the previous article, we learned how papyrus was made. In this second part, we will take a closer look at the materials called parchment and vellum.


Figure 1. Dead Sea Scroll made of parchment


Parchment is treated animal hide – usually from sheep, goat or cattle. According to the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), parchment was invented in the city of Pergamon[1] in the 3rd century BC – hence the name[2]. But parchment had been in use long before this. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BC, writes that “Thus also the Ionians have from ancient times called papyrus-sheets skins, because formerly for lack of papyrus they used the skins of sheep and goats; and even to this day there are many foreigners who write on such skins.” (Herodotus’ The Histories 5:58) The reason behind Pliny the Elder’s belief that parchment was invented in Pergamon might be that the method for treating the hide was improved there. Said improvement made it possible to write on both sides of the parchment, and the Pergamonian treatment method became more widespread.



Developing [3] parchment was a slow and complicated process that required great skill. The first step of the process was finding the right animal. It was of utmost importance to find an animal that had no injuries or illnesses that would scar or discolour the hide. The craftsman also had to consider the colour of the animal’s fur or wool, as this could in turn affect the colour of the parchment.

Following the selection and flaying of the animal, the process of cleaning the hide began. This was usually done by submerging the hide in a solution of ground limestone to remove fat, remaining fur and meat shreds stuck to the inside of the hide. Then the craftsman would fasten the hide to a wooden frame, where it would hang to dry. It was important to tension and stretch the hide to get the surface of the material as smooth as possible. Once the hide had dried, any remaining fur and meat was removed. Finally, the hide was polished and rubbed with chalk or pumice. Once the hide was smooth and supple, the parchment was ready for use. The entire development process took months to complete.



Vellum [4] is a piece of parchment of very high quality. Only particularly fine hides from calves, goat kids or stillborn or newborn lambs were used to make vellum. The result was a very thin parchment that could be hardbound to form a codex or book. Vellum was in use until the advent of paper.

Paul the Apostle was well acquainted with parchment. 2 Timothy 4:13: «When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.» (ESV 2001)


In the Nordic Bible Museum’s gift shop, you can purchase parchment to write on.

In the final part of this article series, we will learn the meaning of a seldom used term; palimpsest.



http://web.ceu.hu/medstud/manual/MMM/parchment.html (retrieved 23.10.18)

http://edu.hioa.no/helgerid/litteraturogmedieleksikon/pergament.pdf (retrieved 23.10.18)

https://historienet.no/sivilisasjoner/egyptere/hva-er-forskjellen-pa-papyrus-og-perga (retrieved 20.10.18)

https://www.bibel.no/InnholdTilblivelse/Tilblivelse/Den__materielle__Bibelen (retrieved 28.10.18)


Image sources:

Figure1. https://www.nsa.edu/academics/graduate-school/the536-dead-sea-scrolls-second-temple-judaism-early-christianity/

Figure 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parchment


[1] Pergamon was an ancient Greek city located in present-day Turkey, about 26 km inland from the Aegean Sea. It was situated on a hill on the northern bank of the river Kaïkos. 
[2] The word comes from the Latin pergamena, which is derived from Pergamon.
[3] For a thorough description of the process of developing parchment, see: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/project/conservation_parchment.aspx
[4] The word is rooted in the Latin vitalinus, meaning calf.

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