February 3, 2012

The Oldest Block Prints in the World

        I wanted to do today's post on the oldest known block prints, since relief printing is such an ancient process.  But "the oldest block print" is actually not such a simple idea.  First of all, a lot depends on what you define as block printing.  For example, the cylinder seals of Sumeria date back to 3500 BCE and were created in much the same way as a relief printing block.  A design was carved into stone so that when the stone was pressed into clay the design would be transferred, as many times as you cared to repeat, and of course in reverse.  But I think you need ink to qualify as printing, so I'm not counting seals.
        On the other hand, some people think you have to print on paper to qualify, and many even want to start the "history of printing" with the earliest printed books.  The "Diamond Sutra" is often cited as the earliest printed book (a scroll, actually), dating from 868 in China, but it's technically the oldest dated printed book we've found.  “The oldest extant woodblock printed text on paper in East Asia is the Dharani sutra discovered in the Seokka-tap (Shakyamuni pagoda) in 1966 in Bulguk-sa Monastery in Gyeongju. Since this pagoda was completed in 751, the printed sutra placed within has the terminal date of 751.”  In any case, however, I think the paper/book definition is too narrow.
        To me, the essence of relief printing is
1. carving a design into some material hard enough to print with
2. spreading ink on the raised areas only
3. transferring the ink to the material to be decorated
4. repeating

        This definition allows me to include fabric, which seems to have predated printing on paper by at least six hundred years, and probably much longer.  The earliest surviving samples of relief printed fabric date to the Han Dynasty (before 220) in China.  (Alas, I could find no pictures to show you.)
        But of course the samples of printing that archaelogists have actually found are undoubtedly not really the earliest.  Fabric and paper don't last long at all, and even wooden printing blocks have a tough time lasting ten or twenty centuries.  The Diamond Sutra mentioned above, although it's one of the earliest printed books people have found, is clearly not a basic or experimental effort.  There must have been any number of less technically sophisticated books printed before it, but they haven't survived (or at the very least have yet to be discovered.)  As for the printing of textiles,
that could have been going on for centuries before the date of any surviving fragments.  Evidence of early printed fabrics has to come from pictures of people wearing patterned clothing that looks as if it might have been printed.  But of course no one knows for sure what process might have been used for these patterns.  One example comes from murals in an Egyptian tomb at Beni Hasan, dating to about 1980BCE.
        Although ancient relief printing was used and viewed in a very different way from modern artists' printmaking, it's still cool to try to see where it all began.

[Pictures: Cylinder seal showing monsters, jasper "printed" on clay, Mesopotamia, Uruk Period (4100-3000BC), (Item in the Louvre);
Frontispiece from the "Diamond Sutra" (aka "Diamond Cutter of Perfect Wisdom") wood block print on paper, Dunhuang China, 868, (Item in the British Library);
Replica of the "Dharani Sutra", wood block print on paper, Gyeongju, Korea, c. 750 (Item in National Museum of Korea);
Nomadic traders in patterned clothes, detail from painted mural in the tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hasan, Egypt, c.1980 BCE.
(All images are from Wikimedia Commons.)]
Quotation from: Kim, Kumja Paik, Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s Age of Enlightenment, 918–1392. San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 2003.

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