Join the Paper Chain

Share Our Love of Paper

Become inspired to enjoy paper and print in all its glory.

Historical Paper Documents - What's Made Them Last
Lukas Juszczak

How Do Historical Documents Stand The Test Of Time?

Did you know that there exists a fragment of paper from a map that was made over 2,000 years ago? [1] It’s an incredible fact when you consider how paper can be so easily cut, torn, screwed up, shredded, pulped or burned!

When we think of ancient documents, we perhaps tend to think of paper’s predecessors – papyrus and, later, parchment. There are examples of ancient Egyptian papyri that are 4,000 years old [2], the dry Egyptian climate offering protection from mould that would otherwise destroy the papyrus. The Domesday Book, published in England in 1086, was written on parchment made from split sheepskin, an extraordinarily strong and durable material.

But while papyrus and parchment are both materials relegated to the annals of history, paper – a material invented in 105 AD – is still very much a part of everyday life around the world. And this commonplace, humble product has the ability to last for centuries if not millennia.

Ancient And Historical Surviving Documents Made From Paper

The world’s oldest dated printed book is The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist religious text that dates back to 868 AD. It was discovered in 1900 by a monk in Dunhuang, China, along with approximately 40,000 other scrolls.[3]

The oldest known paper document of European origin is the Missal of Silos, which was made in 1080 AD at Santa María la Real, a monastery in Spain, in the small town of Najera, and an important stop for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. [4] On the Indian subcontinent, paper manuscripts have been found in Jain temples in Gujarat and Rajasthan dating to the twelfth century.

There are countless other books and documents around the world that are also hundreds of years old. There are 48 surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible (20 of them complete)  – 12 are printed on vellum (a parchment made from calf skin) and 36 on paper. Printed in 1455, it is “the earliest major book printed using mass-produced movable metal type in Europe still in existence”.[5]

The British Library holds approximately 12,500 incunabula (books printed with moveable type before 1501), representing “about 10,390 editions out of an estimated total of surviving 28,000 editions published in the 15th century”.[6]

What Makes Paper Last?

Paper, like most things, ages over time, typically becoming yellow and weaker. It is made from cellulose found in plant cell walls.  Some types of paper last longer than others, depending largely on the manufacturing process and the source of the fibres used.

Paper made from wood-based paper pulp is the most common today. It is used for what we tend to think of as ‘throwaway’ paper, such as newspapers and copier paper. However, paper can also be made from cotton, flax, esparto, straw, hemp, manilla and jute. Some of these plants have longer fibres than others – the longer the fibre the stronger, more flexible and more durable the paper, which usually equates to greater longevity.

Wood pulp is made using a mechanical process to separate fibres from timber. It produces a high yield, making it highly efficient for manufacturing high volumes of paper. This process retains the lignin, the water transport system found within plant fibres. Over time, lignin releases acid, degrading the cellulose and causing paper to yellow and gradually break down. For newspapers and throwaway paper, this isn’t usually an issue and paper’s ability to biodegrade in this way is one of its many unique benefits.

For important paper-based documents that need to last or perhaps be archived, wood-free paper – often called acid-free paper – is used. Because most of the lignin is removed through chemical processing, wood-free paper does not yellow or degrade as quickly. A good acid-free paper can last more than 1,000 years.[7] Kept in the right conditions, even a newspaper can be preserved for many years.[8]

The process of biodegrading can be slowed down if the paper is kept in suitable conditions, such as:

  • away from strong light sources and direct sunlight
  • away from heat sources
  • away from humidity

Will Paper Continue To Stand The Test Of Time?

Without a doubt. Despite its seeming fragility, paper is a material with a proven record of longevity and durability. Can the same be said of digital technologies? Over the last two or three decades, we have seen many technologies come and go; if you saved special documents on a CD-ROM or floppy disk, are you still able to access them? From gadgets to the software, as technologies are continually upgraded, obsolescence becomes an issue. Paper, on the other hand, is a constant.

Long Live(d) Paper!

The Paper Fact File

Paper is one of the most sustainable and recycled materials in the world!

Visit the Paper Fact File to discover the facts about paper’s sustainable attributes. Some might surprise you!