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The Joshua Roll, Vatican Library. An illuminated scroll, probably of the 10th century, created in the Byzantine empire.
Scroll of the Book of Esther, Seville, Spain.
Ingredients used in making ink for Hebrew scrolls today.

A scroll (from the Old French escroe or escroue), also known as a roll, is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or paper containing writing.[1]


A scroll is usually divided up into pages, which are sometimes separate sheets of papyrus or parchment glued together at the edges, or may be marked divisions of a continuous roll of writing material. The scroll is usually unrolled so that one page is exposed at a time, for writing or reading, with the remaining pages rolled up to the left and right of the visible page. It is unrolled from side to side, and the text is written in lines from the top to the bottom of the page. Depending on the language, the letters may be written left to right, right to left, or alternating in direction (boustrophedon).

Some scrolls are simply rolled up pages; others may have wooden rollers on each end: Torah scrolls have rather elaborate rollers befitting their ceremonial function.

History of scroll use

Roman portraiture frescos from Pompeii, 1st century AD, depicting two different men wearing laurel wreaths, one holding the rotulus, the other a volumen

Scrolls were the first form of editable record keeping texts, used in Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilizations. Parchment scrolls were used by the Israelites among others before the codex or bound book with parchment pages was invented by the Latins in the 1st century AD.[citation needed] Scrolls were more highly regarded than codices until well into Roman times, where they were usually written in single latitudinal column.

The ink used in writing scrolls had to adhere to a surface that was rolled and unrolled, so special inks were developed. Even so, ink would slowly flake off of scrolls.


Rolls recording UK Acts of Parliament held in the Parliamentary Archives, Palace of Westminster, London

Shorter pieces of parchment or paper are called rolls or rotuli, although usage of the term by modern historians varies with periods. Historians of the classical period tend to use roll instead of scroll. Rolls may still be many meters or feet long, and were used in the medieval and Early Modern period in Europe and various West Asian cultures for manuscript administrative documents intended for various uses, including accounting, rent-rolls, legal agreements, and inventories. A distinction that sometimes applies is that the lines of writing in rotuli run across the width of the roll (that is to say, are parallel with any unrolled portion) rather than along the length, divided into page-like sections. Rolls may be wider than most scrolls, up to perhaps 60 cm or two feet wide. Rolls were often stored together in a special cupboard on shelves.

A special Chinese form of short book, called the "whirlwind book," consists of several pieces of paper bound at the top with bamboo and then rolled up.[2]


In Scotland, the term scrow was used from about the 13th to the 17th centuries for scroll, writing, or documents in list or schedule form. There existed an office of Clerk of the Scrow (Rotulorum Clericus) meaning the Clerk of the Rolls or Clerk of the Register.[3]

Replacement by the codex

The scroll was largely replaced by the codex, a process which started almost as soon as the codex was invented. For example, in Egypt by the fifth century, the codex outnumbered the scroll or roll by ten to one based on surviving examples, and by the sixth century the scroll had almost vanished from use as a vehicle for literature.[4] Unfortunately, scrolls were usually discarded after their contents were transferred to a codex. Most scrolls uncovered by archaeologists are found in trash middens and burial sites.[5]

Recent discovery

The oldest complete Torah scroll was discovered stored in an academic library in Bolonia, Italy by Professor Mauro Perani in 2013. It had been mislabeled in 1889 as dating from the 17th century, but Perani suspected it was actually older as it was written in an earlier Babylonian script. Two tests conducted by laboratories at Italy’s University of Salento and at the University of Illinois confirmed that the scroll dates from the second half of the 12th century to the first quarter of the 13th century. Ancient Torah scrolls are rare because when they are damaged they stop being used for liturgies and are buried.

The scroll is made up of 58 sections of soft sheep leather. It is 36 meters long and 64 centimeters wide. [6][7]

Modern technology

Modern technology may be able to assist in reading ancient scrolls. In January 2015, computer software may be making progress in reading 2,000-year-old Herculaneum scrolls, computer scientists report. After working for more than 10 years on unlocking the contents of damaged Herculaneum scrolls, researchers may be able to progress towards reading the scrolls, which cannot be physically opened.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Beal, Peter. (2008) "scroll" in A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000 Online edition. Oxford University Press, 2008. Archived 5 June 2013 at WebCite Retrieved 21 November 2013.
  2. ^ International Dunhuang Project - Chinese scroll and "whirlwind" forms from the 10th century
  3. ^ Beal, 2008, "scrow".
  4. ^ Roberts, Colin H., and Skeat, T.C. (1987), The Birth of the Codex. London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, p. 75.
  5. ^ Murray, Stuart A.P., (2012), The Library: An Illustrated History. Chicago: Skyhorse Publishing, p.27.
  6. ^ Oldest complete scroll of Torah found in Italy Archived 7 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine.. (2013). Christian Century, 130(13), 17
  7. ^ "Carbon Dating Confirms World's Oldest Torah Scroll". 31 May 2013. Archived from the original on 23 December 2017. Retrieved 22 December 2017. 
  8. ^ Major breakthrough in reading ancient scrolls Archived 23 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine., Science Daily

External links

  • Digital Scrolling Paintings Project
  • Encyclopaedia Romana: "Scroll and codex"
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