(Left to right) A Mesopotamian proto-cuneiform clay tablet with account of monthly rations, Late Uruk period, circa 3100-3000 BC. Estimate £20,000-30,000; Bible, Genesis, in Hebrew,

The history of script over almost five millennia

The Palaeographic Collection of Martin Schøyen is the most comprehensive collection of manuscripts representing the history of the written word. Specialist Eugenio Donadoni presents a chronological list of highlights offered on 10 July

  • 1
  • The earliest known recorded writing system by man Circa 3100-3000 BC

The first writing system in the world, a proto-cuneiform pictographic script invented in Southern Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago, was born of bureaucratic need. The script, from which cuneiform directly evolved, was developed to monitor the administration of flourishing local economies in southern Iraq. It might be viewed as a complex form of shorthand, and remains almost impossible to decipher.

  • 2
  • One of the earliest known scripts 1813-1812 BC

This tablet is an exceedingly rare source of evidence for centuries of Babylonian royal dynastic rule. It lists the kings and regnal years for the Third Dynasty of Ur, which ended in 2004 BC, and the First Dynasty of Isin. The small format of this manuscript suggests that it may have been excerpted from a longer date list, in which the regnal years of the kings were given their full names. It is one of the few examples to have survived from ancient Babylon.

  • 3
  • An invocation of divine intervention in the Greek Classical era 5th century BC

Curse tablets were popular in the Graeco-Roman world, from the second half of the 6th century BC to the late Roman Imperial period. Curses were often written on lead tablets which were then folded and placed at sites associated with the Underworld, such as sanctuaries of oracles or malevolent spirits. These tablets could be directed against one or more people, or a specific part of the body. For curses directed at participants in a trial — like this example — the tongues of the judicial opponent were targeted.

  • 4
  • A Roman imperial proclamation 143 AD

This is a fleet diploma granting the Thracian Lucius Petronius an honourable discharge from the navy of Emperor Antoninus Pius, and Roman citizenship for himself and his descendants. An official copy of the text of the diploma is on a bronze tablet, which is fixed in Rome on the wall behind the Temple of Augustus. 

This would have been Lucius Petronius’s own copy, and consists of two tablets which would have been bound and sealed together. The text on the inside reflects the text on the outside, so in the event of the outer copy being called into question, reference could be made to the inner text by breaking the seals, without the necessity of referring to the official copy in Rome.

  • 5
  • One of the most important biblical manuscripts ever offered at auction 5th century

One of the earliest records of Christian worship, this fragment from the pre-Vulgate, ‘Old Latin’ version of the Bible sets down the 20th chapter of the Old Testament Book of Ezechiel. It has survived the vicissitudes of time by remaining hidden from view for centuries until it was rediscovered in the early 1900s.

Its parent manuscript was brought from Italy to the Benedictine Abbey of Reichenau in southern Germany  in the first half of the 9th century,  and was then transferred to Constance Cathedral in the 13th century. Just over 1,000 years after it was produced it was broken up, with the leaves used as binder’s waste. This leaf was used to reinforce the binding of a 9th-century sacramentary written at Constance Cathedral, and ended up in the grand library of the Prince Fürstenberg at Donaueschingen in 1853.

  • 6
  • Caroline miniscule Circa 800

Emperor Charlemagne’s (742-814) promotion of scholarship and education fuelled a flurry of intellectual activity and an increase in the dissemination of texts. This contributed to the establishment of a unified, cohesive international script: Caroline miniscule. This is a wonderful example of Caroline script, and the earliest witness to the work of Paul Warnefrid, better known as Paul the Deacon (c.720-799), a monk of the Benedictine convent of Monte Cassino who was one of the principal promulgators of Charlemagne’s ‘Carolingian Renaissance’.

  • 7
  • A fragment of one of the oldest Hebrew biblical codices 9th-10th century

This fragment of Genesis from one of the earliest Hebrew biblical codices is an extraordinary survival from the Cairo Genizah. Described in a letter to The Times  in 1897 as ‘a battlefield of books’, the Genizah was a sacred storehouse located in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, containing some 300,000 manuscript fragments that outlined a 1,000-year continuum of Jewish Middle-Eastern and North African history.

  • 8
  • The rise of bureaucracy in Anglo-Saxon England First half 11th century

The Seal of Wulfric is a testimony to the increasing use of the written word in Anglo-Saxon England. From the 11th century onwards we witness a proliferation of commercial transactions at all levels of society that usually required documentary confirmation. A wax seal was both practical and symbolic, and as more and more documents were ‘signed, sealed and delivered’ (a legal phrase also familiar in the Middle Ages), seals became increasingly common.

Personal seals tended to name their owners and were clearly custom-made: this is the personal seal of a secular figure named Wulfric, portrayed seated and holding a sword. It is one of only five surviving seal matrices from Anglo-Saxon England.

  • 9
  • A rare witness to the medieval trade in domestic slaves June 1401

Throughout Iberia and the Mediterranean world, the sale of a slave was an intricate dance between the buyer and the seller, who had to pledge that the slave was a product ‘of good war, not of peace, and that he or she was not a fugitive, nor consumptive, not possessed by the devil, nor a drunk, not a thief, nor blind in one eye or both, nor a bed wetter, nor suffering from epilepsy or buboes, nor from any other infirmities with all his or her good or bad qualities, seen or unseen’.

This document is an example of just such a transaction: Agnes, wife of Berenguer Luppetus, scriptor in the royal curia of Barcelona, sells to Isabel, wife of Pietro de Campo, apothecary of Barcelona, a slave named Magdalena, aged around 30.

  • 10
  • A palaeographical album spanning 600 years

Ranging in date from the 10th to the 16th century and covering everything from grammar, poetry and rhetoric to arithmetic, astronomy and medicine, this treasure-trove of manuscript fragments from Toul Cathedral in Eastern France was carefully compiled and described by 18th-century archivist Pierre-Camille Le Moine. His hope was to promote the arts and sciences of his own region of Lorraine.

Le Moine was the author of the first printed French monograph entirely devoted to archives and archival management and description. Published in 1765, it became an influential palaeographical and archival handbook which advocated the classification of documents by topic, rather than chronology.