[Editor’s note: This is the fifteenth of an ongoing series that examines the rise of writing – and therefore reading – around the world. It is also the first of a three-part discussion of the rise of printing and its effect on various civilizations. Links to all the previous posts are listed at the end of this one.]
Printing is a process that allows you to reproduce text and images using a master form or template. A civilization’s established social system, with all the knowledge, information, religious views, and philosophies of the time are reflected in its printed work. We tend to think of printing as a relatively modern invention, but the truth is that it dates back thousands of years, almost to the dawn of writing systems themselves. And just like the writing systems, the printing process arose independently several times, in different parts of the world.
The earliest printing products did not use paper, but instead relied on wet clay. Cylinder seals and roller stamps were the primary templates. Cylinder seals were small and round, generally about an inch long. They were typically manufactured from hardstones or even gems, although some were fashioned out of glass or ceramics, and they were engraved with written information and/or figurative scenes. They were rolled over a surface of wet clay to leave an impression. Because they were larger than a seal, they could contain more information, and therefore provide more clarity as to the person’s intent. Stamps were also more useful in printing images on cloth and other similar two-dimensional surfaces.
The seals’ purpose was to serve as a personal signature on a document or package, either to guarantee its authenticity or to sign off on a business transaction. The seals were used by everyone, from royals to slaves. According to some authorities, they originated in the Late Neolithic Period (about 7600–6000 BCE) in the region known today as Syria; according to others, they originated later (about 3500 BCE) in the Mesopotamian region with the Sumerians, in what is modern-day Iraq. Cylinder seals were also used in Egypt, and they developed completely independently with the Olmecs in Mesoamerica; archaeological finds date the seals to around 650 BCE. The Mesopotamian cylinder seal is the best known, however, and it appears to have been the most widely used. It may also have been linked to the invention of the Sumerians’ later cuneiform writing which was done on clay tablets.
The next big development in printing came from East Asia – specifically from China – and it was called woodblock printing. The technique used carved wooden blocks to imprint ink for text, images, and patterns, first on textiles and then on paper. The earliest surviving woodblock-printed fragments come from the Han Dynasty (before 220 CE) and are three-colored flowers on a silk fabric. The earliest known example of woodblock printing on paper also appeared in China, but it was much later, in the mid-seventh century.
By the ninth century, printing on paper had taken off. We know this because we have a copy of a complete printed book containing the date. The book, hidden for centuries in a cave in northwest China, is called the “Diamond Sutra” (a “perfection of wisdom” sutra (religious text) whose title translates as “The Diamond that Cuts through Illusion”), and it was printed in 868 CE. Seven strips of yellow-stained paper were printed from carved wooden blocks and then pasted together; the finished scroll stretches over five meters long. The sutra is written in Chinese, but the text is one of the most important sacred works of Buddhism, which was founded in India. It now resides in the British Library. By the tenth century, 400,000 printed copies of some sutras and pictures were available, and many of Confucius’ books were among those in print; this created a need for learning to read and widened the scope of knowledge among the populace.
In the Far East, paper and ink were the foundations of printing. The paper was mainly derived from a plant fiber base, with the current form perfected by Cai Lun in 105 CE, also during China’s Han Dynasty. Paper spread to other countries at a later time, once its convenience and economic value had been proven. Printing spread early to Korea, which also used Chinese logograms. The exact point of the spread is not known, but since Korea lay adjacent to China, and since the countries engaged in an active cultural exchange, it must have been in the early days of the invention.
In the Middle East, block printing, called “tarsh” in Arabic, developed in Egypt during the ninth and tenth centuries. It was primarily used for prayers and amulets; however, it was never used to print the Quran due to Islamic doctrine, which forbade it. There is some evidence to suggest the print blocks were made from materials other than wood, possibly tin, lead, or clay, but we know little about the techniques used as they appear to have had little influence outside the Muslim world. Block printing went out of use in Islamic Central Asia after movable type printing was exported from China.
Next up: Printing and the Spread of Writing Part 2
 Mark, Joshua J. (November 27, 2015). “Cylinder Seal.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/Cylinder_Seal/
 British Library. (nd.) “Diamond Sutra.” Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20131110093610/http:/www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/diamondsutra.html
 Cefia. (nd). Early Printing in Korea – 1. Korea’s Memory of the World and Early Printing. Retrieved from http://cefia.aks.ac.kr:84/index.php?title=Early_Printing_in_Korea_-_1._Korea%E2%80%99s_Memory_of_the_World_and_Early_Printing_(%E5%8F%A4%E5%8D%B0%E5%88%B7)
 Richard W. Bulliet (1987), “Medieval Arabic Tarsh: A Forgotten Chapter in the History of Printing.” Journal of the American Oriental Society: 107 (3), p. 427-438.
To read Part 1 (Sumerians), click here.
To read Part 2 (Egyptian hieroglyphs), click here.
To read Part 3A (Indo-European languages part 1), click here.
To read Part 3B (Indo-European languages part 2), click here.
To read Part 4 (Rosetta Stone), click here.
To read Part 5 (Chinese writing), click here.
To read Part 6 (Japanese writing), click here.
To read Part 7 (Olmecs), click here.
To read Part 8 (Mayans), click here.
To read Part 9 (Aztecs/Nahuatl), click here.
To read Part 10 (Etruscans), click here.
To read Part 11 (Meroïtic), click here.
To read Part 12 (Runes and Futhark), click here.
To read Part 13 (Musical Notation), click here.