The Pharaoh's Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization
John Gaudet
Amberley Publishing
384 pages, 28 colour and 61 black-and-white illustrations
Paperback, £16.99


In 2013 archaeologists working near the Red Sea uncovered the oldest surviving writing on paper in the world – the diary and records of Merer, an inspector for the Pharaoh Khufu, (2589–2562 BC), builder of the Great Pyramid. Written on papyrus paper they chronicle the work of Merer's team of assistants and include a kind of spreadsheet: think Excel circa 2562 BC.

It was the efficient management of such great projects and other endeavours through the use of written records, says John Gaudet in The Pharaoh's Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization, that enabled Egypt to become the wonder of its time.

While gold may have thrilled the eye, this early paper – made by pressing together thin slices of the white inner stem of the papyrus plant and drying them in the sun – became the pharaoh's greatest treasure. Lightweight, flexible, durable and easy to transport, it was the perfect vehicle for record-keeping and communication. As Gaudet says in his delightful exploration of the history of this wondrous material: 'What a godsend!'

Luckily, the papyrus was a fast-growing plant and Egypt had plenty of it. From the end of the Neolithic period in 3000 BC papyrus paper fed the needs of the early Greek, Arab, Syrian and Roman empires and became essential for the growth and development of the Western world. For around 4000 years it was the primary means of recording the written word.

Gaudet loses no time in seizing our attention, beginning with Indiana Jones-style tales of adventure from the early period of 'paper chasing'. The relentless and unscrupulous Frenchman Emile Prisse d'Avennes (1807–79) seized remarkable treasures including the Prisse Papyrus – the oldest literary work on paper, dated to around 1800 BC. While the Egyptologist Wallis Budge (1857–1934), Assistant Keeper at the British Museum, avidly collected a huge cache of priceless scrolls.

In 1895, the groundbreaking discovery of scrolls on an ancient rubbish dump by the papyrologists BP Grenfell (1869–1926) and AS Hunt (1871–1934), near the town of Oxyrhynchus revealed valuable fragments of works by Pindar and Sappho, Euripides and Sophocles, as well as texts relating to biblical history. Fragments of scrolls found on other rubbish heaps 'in the dry areas of Egypt' have also proved a boon – with discarded legal documents, diaries, scientific and medical texts all helping to give us a glimpse of everyday life in Ancient Egypt.

Writer, ecologist and expert on papyrus, Gaudet is well placed to explain the means of production of papyrus paper, also described by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia. Since it was the only place where papyrus grew in great quantities, Egypt became the paper maker to the world and enjoyed the longest running monopoly in history. Once the industry was controlled by the pharaohs but, from 30 BC until AD 640, the Romans ruled Egypt, which then supplied paper scrolls and sheets to the whole of the empire. There was a bit of a panic in the time of Tiberius (AD 14–37) about supply and, in his Geographica, Strabo (circa 64 BC – AD 24) hints at the operation of cartels.

Gaudet provides a marvellous array of entertaining and enlightening tales on how papyrus paper acted as the midwife for many human ventures and experiences. The writing and publishing trades emerged. For example, when the Egyptian Book of the Dead, once written on tomb walls, was recorded on papyrus scrolls, it became the first 'bestseller' in history.

While fuelling the development of state bureaucracies, the use of papyrus paper for religious texts and literary compositions also proved vital, and many of our greatest literary treasures were written on it. These were collected in the libraries of antiquity, the most illustrious of which was the Royal Library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world, which Julius Caesar inadvertently managed to burn down in 48 BC.

Paper also prompted the art of letter-writing – perfected by Cicero – and an enthusiasm for private collections of literary works. For example, the 250 charred rolls of papyrus excavated from the library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum (see pages 20 to 26).

Early copies of the Bible were mostly written on papyrus in codex form. The new book format provided more space and was easier to carry. When rag paper devised by the Arabs was introduced, Egypt's papyrus swamps were converted to agricultural use. Paper made from wood pulp was discovered by the Chinese, and is what we use today. Yet papyrus paper is still made for Egypt's tourist trade, ensuring its long history continues.

Today, electronic notebooks don't even need ink, but will their place in history persist to produce anything as extraordinary and entertaining as the tales contained in The Pharaoh's Treasure?

Diana Bentley

 

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