Books gained popularity and became easily available for the common population with the advent of print media in the 19th century. But even before this period, ancient books existed. They were either handwritten, painted using stencils, or methods of stamping.
Even before books could be printed, many authors wrote scholarly works and got them published in the form of books that were preserved in university libraries or a king’s court. Ancient books or antique books for the reason of their rarity are a matter of awe and study. Here are a few ancient books that might interest you.
1. Madrid Codex
Madrid Codex is a richly illustrated glyphic text of the pre-conquest Mayan period and one of few known survivors of the mass book-burnings by the Spanish clergy during the 16th century. This book contains a wealth of knowledge in astrology and deviation practices.
The Madrid Codex is believed to be a product of the late Mayan period (c. 1400 CE) and is possibly a post-classic copy of classic Mayan scholarship. Currently, this book is housed in the Museum of America in Madrid.
2. Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible is the oldest book that was mechanically printed. The Gutenberg Bible had no title page, no page numbers, and no innovations to distinguish it from the work of a manuscript copyist. This was presumably the desire of both Gutenberg and his customers.
The first copies of this bible were printed in 1454-1455 AD.
The original number of copies of this work is unknown; some 40 are still in existence. There are perfect vellum copies in the U.S. Library of Congress, the French Bibliotheque Nationale, and the British Library. In the United States, almost-complete texts are in the Huntington, Morgan, New York Public, Harvard University, and Yale University libraries.
3. The Diamond Sutra
The Diamond Sutra was originally discovered in 1900 by a monk in Dunhuang, China, an old outpost of the Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The Diamond Sutra, a Sanskrit text translated into mandarin, was one of 40,000 scrolls and documents were hidden in The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a secret library sealed up around the year 1,000 when the area was threatened by a neighboring kingdom.
This scroll, which dates back to 868 A.D., is housed in the British Library today and is acknowledged as the oldest dated printed book in existence.
4. Siddur, Jewish Prayer Book
Siddur is a Jewish prayer book which contains wish liturgy used on the ordinary sabbath and on weekdays for domestic as well as synagogue ritual. The prayers of this book breathe acknowledgment of sin and prayers for forgiveness.
The earliest existing codification of the prayer book was drawn up by Amram Gaon of Sura, Babylon, about 850 CE.
The old and original parchment is still in its original building and it is so old that it contains Babylonian vowel pointing which is similar to old or middle English language.
5. Book of Kells
The 9th century Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript gospel book in Latin, containing the four gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables.
The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, which was its home for centuries.
Today, it is housed at Trinity College Library, Dublin which usually has on display at any given time two of the current four volumes, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages.
You can also find the digitized version of this book online.
6. Etruscan Gold Book
70 years ago, the book called Etruscan Gold Book was discovered while digging a canal off the Struma river in Bulgaria.
The most interesting fact about this book is its pages and cover are made of 23.82-carat gold and the quality of the work of the craftsman who made this book indicates the advanced goldsmith techniques used by the Etruscans.
Etruscan was written in an alphabet derived from the Greek alphabet; this alphabet was the source of the Latin alphabet, but unfortunately, the problem has been to decipher the exact meaning of the words.
The book was donated to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, by an anonymous 87-year-old donor.
7. Pyrgi Gold Tablets
Dated 500 BCE, Pyrgi is 3 gold tablets inscribed in Etruscan text. They were discovered in 1964 during a series of excavations at the site of ancient Pyrgi, on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy.
Since they contain holes in the edges, the scholars believe they were once bound together.
The tablets are now held at the National Etruscan Museum, Villa Giulia, Rome.
8. Nag Hammadi Library
Discovered in upper Egypt in 1945, Nag Hammadi Library contains a collection of thirteen ancient books called Codices.
The discovery and translation of the Nag Hammadi library, initially completed in the 1970s, has provided impulsion to a major re-evaluation of early Christian history and the nature of gnosticism.
Thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local farmer named Mohammed al-Samman. The codices were written in the Coptic language. The buried manuscripts date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The Nag Hammadi codices are currently found at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
9. Celtic Psalter
The 11 century-old Celtic Psalter contains handwritten Latin psalms with Celtic and Pictish illustrations.
The origin of the psalter is a mystery but experts believe it was probably produced by monks in Iona, who were also associated with the making of the Book of Kells.
This book is still in great condition and was kept locked in the University of Edinburgh, out of public view. Only recently this book was available for public viewing in a closed case.
Although the original binding has been lost, the script is bold and clear and the red, green, purple, and gold in the illustrations are still vivid.
10. St Cuthbert Gospel
Europe’s oldest surviving book, St. Cuthbert Gospel is a manuscript that contains a copy of the Gospel of John.
This book was discovered inside the coffin of St. Cuthbert, a hermit monk who died in 687 CE. It’s said that his body was found incorrupt decades after his death and this led to a cult that placed sacrifices around his remains.
The book, a rare surviving medieval manuscript, was removed from his coffin in 1104 CE and transferred to Durham Cathedral, where it was kept as a separate relic.
In 2012, the British Library acquired the 1,300-year-old text, which still retained its original binding and pages. Written in an uncial script this book is bound in wooden cover boards, covered with toled red leather.
We hope you enjoyed reading the information about these ancient books. The more a book dates, the more precious it becomes. These books are now kept under extreme care to maintain their condition.
But if you want to find out more about these ancient books, then a lot of digitized versions are available online for readers as well, go digging and feed yourself with astonishing knowledge. Happy Reading!