Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Jewel of the Nile

How the ancient Egyptians revolutionized information exchange or at least made it easier to carry your ideas around, hard copy style.

As a species we are compelled to tell our stories. 

Pre historically we painted on cave walls by firelight.  We shared tales of big hunts and great nomadic adventures.  For tens of thousands of years, this was how we captured the tales of our daily lives.  However strikingly beautiful and permanent these paintings have been, they are a less than portable way of sharing information.  
What is it about a book?  

After all, it’s just paper and glue.  Sometimes linen and leather with a little gilt thrown in for good measure (not to be confused with the kind that mothers can throw at you).  And yet, the very thought of a book, stirs the emotions of the bibliophile dwelling in us all.  

No matter how many information rich downloadable e-devices you employ or how often you read your favorite stories online, few things on our fair planet compare to the feeling of holding a book in your hands. 

I think part of the allure is the paper.

The word paper is a derivation of ,“papyrus” which is the name of the plant used by the ancient Egyptians starting around 2400 b.c.e., give or take.  By way of a stripping, layering, pressurizing and polishing process, ancient Egyptian artisans created a lightweight substance that made it possible to record and trade information.  A pharoahnic data capture system, if you will.  The information of those days was everything from agricultural inventories, stories of great hunts and of course the more famous, Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Prior to the paper we use today with its infinite textures, colors and designs, few choices were to be had.  You did however have choices limited though they were.

As they grew and changed our ancient ancestors discovered additional ways to capture their stories.  Through the use of earth borne materials they created a new medium for telling their stories.  They discovered a most remarkable substance that could be shaped and molded into vessels, tools and tablets.  


They also developed characters that represented ideas and thoughts.  Through this collective consciousness they created a system of writing - cuneiform and preserved their ideas into clay tablets.  These delightful little tablets gave us retention and portability.   

Cuneiform tablets were all the rage starting somewhere around 3500 b.c.e. – cute yet cumbersome (average size about that of a credit card with the thickness of a deck of cards) and using 1000 to 400 unique cuneiform characters (the number of characters actually decreased over time), not that the characters added to the weight but consider the volume of volumes to capture a message.  Today's dictionary would have weighed a ton.

Enter the ancient Egyptians.  

An incredible civilization spanning five and one half millenia, the Egyptians of old brought technology and art to a new level of sophistication and practicality.  So much so, that their art and artifacts survive today.  From 5000 b.c.e., when the first evidence of people settling along the Nile until 650 A.D. when the last temple was built, the Egyptians were forefront in creating and refining techniques in all manner of life.  

The Egyptians were masters in most all they touched; architecture, agriculture, archivery, writing, textiles and paper.  Yes, the ancient Egyptians gave us the precursor to modern paper. 

Taken almost for granted today, papyrus was truly the Jewel of the Nile.  

Papyrus was the inspiration for paper although it is not technically paper, as it is made from a woody reedy stalk rather than pulp.  Not exactly origami material either, but you could roll it and scroll it.  Papyrus was lightweight, compared to cuneiform tablets and quite durable.  

Many exquisite ancient examples remain in museum collections today.  Beautiful panoramas depicting grand hunting parties, ceremonies of worship, dancers in celebration and of course the final rites of passage found in the Book of the Dead.  

Over time, the Egyptian culture progressed in its use of papyrus and in so doing created an entire labor force, the scribe.  The scribe was an honored and royal position, being a standard of the ancient Egyptian courts accompanied with palette, ink, water and reeds with which to make their marks.  They were associated with the ibis headed god Thoth (still trying to figure out that connection- how does a bird hold a writing implement?  Maybe they wrote with their curvy beaks).

Revered for their ability to write down the news of the day, scribes were most often male, spent years in training and usually came from within the same family.  Very few scribes came from families of other professions.  Oddly enough there are accounts of women being scribes however, they were also doctors and were taught to read and write (which is basically what a scribe did) so they could read medical texts.

What the Egyptians created allowed for the portability of an idea.  And while the paper we know today is millennia removed from papyrus, it was nevertheless the inspiration.  It was truly a gem carved from the reeds that grew along the banks of the Nile, itself a sacred part of this ancient culture.

Following papyrus, the use of parchment first began around the 5th century b.c.e. and was made from lime treated animal skins.   Somewhat Gein-esque (not linking you to that but you can look him up if you have a strong stomach for macabre murderers ((oxymoronic, I know)).  But parchment had its shortcomings – incredibly sensitive to humidity which will happen with dead animal skin.  However it was a fair substitute during a time when papyrus was in short supply due to some type of ancient embargo.

Around 100 A.D. the Chinese of the Han dynasty perfected the early process that is the paper we’ve come to know and love. More on that later. 

So the next time you hold a lovely little package of leaves and boards, think back to the breezy balmy banks of the Nile river and the ancient people whose ingenuity inspired those lovely pages.

Until next time...

                                      ...keep tripping on books!!

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