Saturday, December 13, 2014

Papyrus: Foundation of Modern Paper

Example of a papyrus (source: Wikimedia, public domain)
Paper had been and has been an essential part of mankind. It allows improvement it recording, writing, and communication. Many civilization tried to create a form of medium for writing, from Americas to China. But the Egyptians were among the first, if not the first, to develop a material that would lead to creation of paper. From the stems of a plant, the Egyptian created the papyrus.

The papyrus was one of the greatest contribution of Egyptians to mankind. Papyrus was a change from the traditional use of cuneiform and stones to record or to write. It allowed the easier preservation of the history of the Egyptian history and culture. It became a monopoly which directed for the ancient to look upon the Egyptian civilization with high regards. This monopoly led to the development of modern paper.

Papyrus was an innovation unique to the Egyptians. The oldest know papyrus in Egypt was dated from 3500 BCE to 3000 BCE. Papyrus were made from the papyrus plant or cyperus papyrus. The papyrus plant was an aquatic plant that grew abundantly in the shallow waters of rivers of Africa. In the case of Egypt, the banks of the Nile became breeding grounds for the papyrus plant. The climate of Egypt also allowed for the flourishing of papyrus. Papyrus survive well in dry climates of the desert. And so, many records and Ancient Egyptian sources written in papyrus survived intact and found in the humid and dry climate of deserts.

The production of papyrus was simple. First, the stalk of the papyrus plant would be taken. Its outer skin would be removed to gain access of its fibrous core. The fibrous core would then be cut into strips, soaked in water, and placed each one vertically and side by side. Then another layer of strips would be added but this time in a horizontal direction. The water and the sap of the papyrus plant became the binding agent of the paper. After the two layers placed, it would then be hammered with a stone and let dried under the sun. It would then be pressed for one last time before completion. Sizes varied but usually, it was 8.5 inches in width.

According to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder, quality of the papyrus varied depending on the part of the stem used. Using the fibrous core was the highest quality. Papyrus made from the skin was a lower quality papyrus.

When papyrus were combined together, they were called scrolls. Twenty pages of papyrus laid down together side by side was connected to form a scroll. The Greeks called papyrus scrolls as biblion, the root word of many words like bibliography and even the word bible. Scroll were the books of Ancient Egypt. Papyrus scrolls served many purposes. It kept record of the pharaoh through the help of scribes. Scrolls were also used for literature. Scrolls also had religious purposes. Prayers and ritual texts were encoded within papyrus scrolls. Among the well-known example of a religious text in a papyrus scroll was the Book of the Dead, a guide for those who wanted a good journey to the afterlife.

But the Egyptians were tough in keeping the secrets of papyrus. The name itself, papyrus, came from the word papuro meaning royal property of Pharaoh. The production of papyrus was a state secret. It was an Egyptian monopoly. The much of the ancient Mediterranean world get their papyrus from Egypt. The Aegean countries got their supply of papyrus from the Phoenician city of Byblos and the reason for papyrus being called as Biblos by the Greek. The monopoly lasted for centuries. Later on, the monopoly led for other people to search a substitute for papyrus. This resulted to the creation of parchments and later vellum.

With the arrival of the parchment and vellum, the use of the papyrus declined. By the 3rd century CE, parchment and vellum began to replace papyrus as the primary writing material in the known world. Development continued until 800 CE, paper had taken over the papyrus’ role. Nevertheless, paper owned its name and existence from the foundation of the papyrus invented by the Egyptians.

David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998

Krebs, Robert & Carolyn Krebs. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, & Discoveries of the Ancient World. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Solodky, M. Technology of Ancient Egypt. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, Inc., 2006.

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