2c--Parchment and Vellum
By the 4th century C.E., parchment and vellum had replaced papyrus for most books, although papyrus was still often
used for personal correspondence. Leather had been used as early as the 9th century B.C.E. for writing, but was usually
not sufficiently finished to take writing on both sides. Parchment can be made from almost any animal skin, but goats,
sheep, and (especially) calves were most commonly used. Ordinary skins produced parchment; more select raw materials
(especially young calves, newly born calves, and unborn calves or lambs to make “uterine vellum”) were used in the
manufacture of vellum. After a skin was washed, limed (to loosen the hair), scraped, and washed again, the skin was
stretched evenly and tightly on a frame. A second scraping pared down any inequalities. The skin, now parchment or
vellum, was dusted with sifted chalk, rubbed with pumice, and then cut to size as a final step before use. Refinements
were made in the manufacturing process throughout the first four centuries C.E. After the copying of books was impeded
by Ptolemy V’s ban on the export of papyrus from Egypt, Pergamum in Mysia (modern-day Turkey) became the chief center
of the parchment trade. Charta pergamena proved to be more durable than papyrus and its ascendence marks a significant
development in the history of technical advances in the dissemination of knowledge. Parchment was more easily made
than papyrus, was less brittle and could be folded to make a signature for a codex, could be reused (thus creating a
“palimpsest,” see below), and both sides could receive writing. Beginning in the 6th century C.E., vellum was often stained
with a color (usually royal purple), with lettering in silver or gold for more elaborate book productions. How many skins
were required to produce a single book? One notable later example: in the 1450s, one copy (2 volumes) of Gutenberg’s 42-
line Bible required about 300 sheep. Numerous examples of books made from parchment and vellum can be viewed in
Gallery 3a-d, “Manuscript Books and Written Documents,” and Gallery 6b, “Scrolls.”

    Please CLICK on an image for an ENLARGED version.
The first stamp in a 5-value set commemorating the “Production of Early Manuscripts” issued
by Ethiopia on 16 June 1989 depicts the stretching of vellum on a frame as part of the
preparation process. The second value depicts ink horns and pens used to write on the
parchment or vellum once it’s prepared to receive ink (Ethiopia Scott #1253-1254).
Before printing, books existed as manuscripts laboriously written on parchment or vellum.  
Most European and many American manuscript repositories contain palimpsests, which are
entire manuscripts or manuscript fragments made of parchment that have been recycled and
reused. Because parchment was relatively expensive to produce, the writing on older books
was often scraped or washed off, which allowed the cleaned parchment to be covered again
with new writing. There are some cases where parchment was rewritten twice, resulting in a
codex bis rescriptus. To a greater or lesser extent, traces of the erased texts remain
visible, but often not to the naked eye. Their secrets fascinate modern scholars because of
their possible literary or technical significance.  In the 19th century, chemicals were used to
decipher the fainter texts, which, however, often left irreparable damage.  In the 20th century
some success was achieved with photographic methods and in particular the use of UV
fluorescence.  Today non-damaging developments in digital recording technology,
multispectral filtering, and electronic-image processing hold out promising prospects to books
as valuable cultural heritage.  
Through its Culture 2000 program, between November 2001 and October 2004, the European
Union sponsored a pilot project devoted to rediscovering and disseminating Greek
palimpsests in particular.  Directed by Professor Dr. Dieter Harlfinger of the Universität
Hamburg, the Rinascimento Virtuale Project linked more than 50 institutions from 26
European countries, thereby forming a network for this project and paving the way for future
research.  Through conferences, exhibitions, and publications, the interested general public
was made aware of the many aspects of palimpsest research.  The country of Liechtenstein
elected to support and publicize the project in a philatelic manner by issuing a special
commemorative stamp, pictured to the left (Liechtenstein Scott #1301).
The stamp’s motif symbolizes European collaboration in the rediscovery of concealed writing,
which is viewed as evidence of the shared cultural inheritance.  The logo of the Rinascimento
Virtuale Project shows the contours of Europe reflected on a Greek palimpsest belonging to
the Abbey of Grottaferrata.  The 2.50 Fr. stamp was produced by the Austrian Printing House
after a steel engraving by W. Seidel.
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