Lascaux’s Caves with their earth colored images of cattle and stags; white-ground lekythoi with their spare and elegant mourning figures; the bronze mirrors of all over the ancient world, incised with contour or outline drawings are all beautiful examples of drawing, but not what we now commonly think of as drawings. When we think of drawings, we usually think of works on paper.
The history of drawing and writing are closely linked. The very earliest writing is image based, drawn images give way to symbols and symbols to letters. The materials used in writing and in drawing are also mostly the same. Papyrus, parchment, paper, pen, brush, ink, paint are shared by writing and drawing.
The word paper comes from the word papyrus. Papyrus plants are aquatic and were cultivated along the Nile for their use as a support for writing (scrolls and later codices), as well as for building materials, sailcloth, fuel etc. The plant’s stem is made up of fibrous white interior which is easily cut into strips. Strips are fastened together by overlapping and pounding the damp pieces of papyrus to form sheets and then long scrolls. The more expensively produced scrolls would have had the papyrus buffed to a smooth finish, would have had carved wood and bone rollers, might have been illustrated, and maybe housed in protective boxes. Reading a scroll must be very much like scrolling on a computer. A couple of differences are that with scrolls one reads sideways, rather than longitudinally, and no “find” command. The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, named because of the large library of papyrus scrolls found there, contained some 1,785 scrolls and is the only ancient library to remain intact (Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD insured that the scrolls were preserved, though carbonized). The Villa dei Papiri belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. The ancient world’s largest library was at Alexandria and had some 700,000 papyri.