10 Most Ancient Surviving Books in Human History
The written word has been a cornerstone of human civilization for millennia. From clay tablets and scrolls to modern-day books, the medium for recording knowledge has evolved significantly over time. The question of the oldest surviving book is a complex one, as it depends on how we define a book and its significance. In this article, we’ll delve into ten of the most ancient known surviving books in the world, each with its unique historical and cultural significance.
Scenes connected to the hunt, Madrid Codex
1. Madrid Codex (Estimated age: 494 years old)
The Madrid Codex, also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex, is a rare treasure from the pre-Columbian Maya culture, dating back to around 900–1521 AD. It was discovered in Spain in the 1860s and is currently housed in the Museo de América in Madrid. Experts debate its exact creation date, but some suggest it predates the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. Written in Yucatecan, a group of Mayan languages, this codex provides valuable insights into the Mayan civilization.
2. Gutenberg Bible (Estimated age: 559 years old)
The Gutenberg Bible, also called the 42-line Bible, stands as the world’s oldest mechanically printed book, with the first copies produced in 1454–1455 AD by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. While China had earlier examples of book printing, such as the Diamond Sūtra, this Bible marked a significant advancement in Western printing technology. There are 48 known original copies, with 21 complete copies. The New York Public Library owns one of these iconic editions.
3. Celtic Psalter (Estimated age: 938 years old)
Scotland’s answer to the Book of Kells, the Celtic Psalter, is a pocket-sized book of Psalms. Created in the 11th century AD, it is Scotland’s oldest surviving book. In 2009, it went on public display at the University of Edinburgh, allowing admirers to appreciate its historical and artistic significance.
4. Diamond Sūtra (Estimated age: 1,145 years old)
The Diamond Sūtra, a Buddhist holy text, claims the title of the world’s oldest surviving dated printed book. Unearthed in China in a sealed cave, this scroll consists of Chinese characters printed on gray paper and dates back to May 868 AD. What sets this text apart is an inscription at the end detailing the book’s creation by Wong Jei on his parents’ instructions.
5. Siddur, Jewish Prayer Book (Estimated age: 1,173 years old)
In 2013, a remarkable discovery was made—a Jewish prayer book, or’siddur,’ dating back to around 840 AD. This parchment, still in its original binding, features Babylonian vowel pointing, reflecting the language of the Geonim during the Middle Ages. This remarkable find offers a glimpse into the religious practices of that era.
6. Book of Kells (Estimated age: 1,213 years old)
Housed in the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland, the Book of Kells is a masterpiece created by Celtic monks around 800 AD. This illuminated manuscript Gospel book is written in Latin and contains the four Gospels of the New Testament. Its intricate designs and vivid illustrations make it a marvel of medieval artistry.
7. St Cuthbert Gospel (Estimated age: 1,315 years old)
Europe’s oldest known surviving intact book is the St. Cuthbert Gospel. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012 for £9 million as part of a fundraising campaign. This book was buried with St. Cuthbert, an early British Christian leader, around 698 AD. Its journey through history, surviving Viking conquests and rediscovery in 1104 AD, adds to its historical significance.
8. Nag Hammadi Library (Estimated age: 1,693 years old)
Considered among the oldest surviving bound books, the Nag Hammadi Library consists of 13 leather-bound papyrus codices discovered in 1945 in Upper Egypt. These codices contain Gnostic texts and are dated to the first half of the 4th century AD. They are currently housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, shedding light on early Christian thought.
9. Pyrgi Gold Tablets (Estimated age: 2,513 years old)
In 1964, three gold plates were discovered in ancient Pyrgi, Italy, dating back to 500 BC. These plates, written in Etruscan and Phoenician, comprise a dedication from King Thefarie Velianas to the Phoenician goddess Astarte. Their display at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome offers a glimpse into the ancient Etruscan civilization.
10. Etruscan Gold Book (Estimated age: 2,673 years old)
The Etruscan Gold Book, dating to about 660 BC, is thought to be the world’s oldest multi-page book. Comprising six sheets of 24-carat gold bound together with rings, this remarkable artifact features Etruscan characters and depictions of a horse, a horseman, a siren, a lyre, and soldiers. It was donated to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia by an anonymous donor.
These ten ancient surviving books provide windows into the rich tapestry of human history, culture, and knowledge. From the Mayan civilization to the dawn of printing technology in Europe, and from religious texts to illuminated manuscripts, these books transcend time, connecting us with our ancestors and their wisdom. They are not just records of the past but treasures that continue to inspire and educate generations.