A lively overview of a medium that was central to public and private life in the ancient world.
Ecologist Gaudet (Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World, 2014, etc.) expands on the research that informed his first book by investigating the history of paper from the end of the Stone Age to 1000 C.E. During that period, paper was made from papyrus that grew in swamps around the Nile, the only place that the reedy plant could flourish in quantity. For 4,000 years, therefore, Egypt had “uninterrupted and exclusive control” over the production of papyrus paper, the longest monopoly in world history. The medium “was the property of the king, since paper manufacture was at that time a royal prerogative.” It was vitally important both economically and culturally. In agriculture, which economists deem “the real basis for Egypt’s greatness,” tracking production depended on “lightweight paper to process and manage data sets.” Unlike tablets made of lead, copper, wax, or clay or writing surfaces made of tree bark or leather, papyrus paper “weighed almost nothing” and yet was extremely durable. Besides record-keeping, papyrus made its way into pyramids and coffins as funerary scrolls containing texts known as the Book of the Dead. These writings, Gaudet explains, were “designed in consultation with priests to ensure that the deceased came alive after death.” Organizing the book into three sections, the author first establishes paper as “a key element in global advancement” and dissemination of information. He notes that after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Egyptmania raged across Europe and Britain, sending thousands of Victorian collectors to pillage tombs and temples in search of ancient artifacts. A middle section details how paper and ink are made and scrolls are assembled, and a last section looks at the environmental changes and technical innovations—such as vellum, Chinese paper, and rag paper—that relegated papyrus paper to what it is now: a souvenir for tourists.
An engaging journey to the distant past.