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What is the secret of the material on which the biblical texts were recorded: Forgotten ancient technology of making papyrus
What is the secret of the material on which the biblical texts were recorded: Forgotten ancient technology of making papyrus

It is difficult to imagine how difficult the work of historians would have been if the ancient papyri had not fallen into their hands. From the ruins of temples and household items found in tombs alone, you cannot make up a picture of the past. And this writing material itself could be completely different - perishable, or excessively expensive, or rare. But the papyrus did mankind a great service, preserving information about the ancient world for millennia. True, it was not without ambiguities and omissions here, too - some of them are associated precisely with the process of transforming the plant of the Nile swamps into papyrus scrolls.

What was ancient papyrus

Since we are talking about antiquity, when there were no effective medicines, no more or less convenient means of transport, or even money in the usual sense of the word, a rather unflattering idea is formed about the material for recordings. The imagination draws something like wet clay, on which they scratch with a wedge-shaped stick, or hastily obtained birch bark, suitable for scratching dashes-words on it.

Ani Papyrus, XIII century BC

But with papyrus - even though its history is distinguished by a rather venerable age - everything is not so: the technology of its production deserves a separate study. It was a rather delicate work, requiring a conscious approach and knowledge of the material: otherwise the product would be of poor quality and certainly would not have survived to this day. Papyrus began its history in Ancient Egypt, later spreading throughout the ancient world. In very ancient times, the papyrus plant was probably a symbol of Egypt. It was called in those days, of course, differently: the word "papyrus" is of Greek origin, it gave birth to many terms, including "paper" in English, French, German and other languages. The words "ouj", "chufi", "jet" are known - this is how papyrus was called in ancient Egypt.

Papyrus plant - Cyperus papyrus

Of course, this sedge herb could not grow in the desert, papyrus was mined in swampy soils along the banks of the Nile, and this activity was seasonal in nature and was confined to the floods of the great river. In addition to being used as a writing material, papyrus was also used as a building material - for building boats and arranging houses. Ropes and mats were woven from the stems of these plants; papyrus in different species could become part of the diet of animals or even humans; the ash of this plant was added to ancient medicinal drugs.

This is what boats made of papyrus looked like

The oldest surviving papyri was discovered in a tomb of the 1st dynasty, the burial dates back to about 2850 BC. Since then, this material has served humanity for several thousand years, after which it was supplanted by parchment and forgotten for several centuries.

Papyrus production technology

Papyrus is a perennial plant whose stems, about the thickness of a human hand, can reach 4 to 6 meters in height. He does not need much - only constantly moistened soil. Papyrus does not suffer from diseases, insects do not eat it, it is not of great interest to animals. There is absolutely no data on the extent to which the extraction of papyrus was carried out in Ancient Egypt.Some assumptions are based only on the fact that the documents were used quite widely and concerned various aspects of life, including minor business matters, and, therefore, there was no shortage of this writing material.

Pliny's "Natural History" is an encyclopedia in which not all facts can be considered reliable, but there is almost no other information about the papyrus in ancient documents

In ancient times - this is known from the writings of Greek and Roman historians - the largest plantations of papyrus were the Fayum oasis and the suburbs of Alexandria in the Nile delta region. We are talking about an area of ‚Äč‚Äčthousands of square kilometers, hundreds of workers worked there, and the procedure for collecting papyrus and its processing was probably carefully debugged over the centuries of its existence. Historians have practically no information about the ancient technology of producing papyrus scrolls - information is taken from the work of Pliny under the title "Natural History", but the Roman, when describing the process, admits of obvious contradictions and is not always consistent, therefore, the reliability of his testimony by scientists is questioned. However, in the absence of other sources of information, Pliny's story cannot be ignored.

Demonstration of the papyrus leaf making process at the Papyrus Museum in Syracuse

The papyrus was collected by pulling out the stem from the root, otherwise the plant fragments remaining in the soil would lead to decay processes. The upper, outer part of the stem was removed, the core was cut into long thin strips and laid on a large flat surface so that the edges only slightly overlapped one another. Each layer was abundantly moistened with water (according to Pliny - from the Nile), beat off with a hammer, added glue, beat off again. After that, the papyrus was left to dry under a press. The width of the sheet was from 15 to 47 centimeters; the finished papyrus leaf was rolled into a scroll. They wrote first on the inside of the scroll, and only when there was a lack of space did they move to the outside. Sometimes what was written earlier was erased and the papyrus was reused - according to some historians, this indirectly confirms the rather high cost of papyrus, while others attribute this habit to the natural economy of material for a person.

Abbott Papyrus, 1100 BC

Recreating the technology of making papyri today

For some reason, not a single ancient Egyptian monument left information about how much and how papyrus was made and who was in charge of this production. But images of papyrus can be found on the walls of ancient temples - in the form of hieroglyphs. And an important element of many Egyptian buildings - columns - were also built in the form of papyrus stems.

The columns of ancient Egyptian temples were built in the form of papyrus stems

The oldest of the documents created thanks to this material is the "Prissa papyrus", dating from the 20th - 18th centuries. BC. The preservation of the papyrus for such a long time is difficult to explain by the climate of Egypt alone, undoubtedly extremely favorable for many of the ancient materials. How quickly the scroll lost its flexibility and crumbled to dust depended on the composition of the papyrus, and possibly on the technology of its manufacture, including the ingredients for the adhesive.

Donkey purchase agreement drawn up in Greek

The papyrus could be of different varieties, on which the cost of the finished scroll also depended - this is also known from the work of Pliny. In ancient times, up to a million scrolls were made a year - the production of papyrus was carried out not only on the African continent, but also in Sicily, where their plantations were created.

On the Narmer palette, under the image of a falcon, you can see six stems of papyrus - they symbolize six thousand captives after the successful conquest of the army of Lower Egypt by the pharaoh of Upper Egypt

Papyri was finally superseded by another writing material - parchment - at the beginning of the second millennium. Parchment was not cheap - but opal for papyrus began not because of the emergence of a more profitable alternative, but as a result of political processes in medieval Europe. As a result, writing, preserving and reading documents has become expensive and affordable for a few, mainly monasteries, and the literacy rate among the common population has dropped dramatically. The revival of interest in ancient documents and papyri is associated already with the Renaissance period (when paper was already in use), but only in the 18th century, when Herculaneum and Pompeii were freed from the ashes, the ancient scrolls became truly popular with researchers and readers. the public.

Charred papyrus found in the villa of papyrus in Herculaneum, a city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in the 1st century BC

The idea arose to revive the production of papyrus, but by that time the plant itself was no longer cultivated in Egypt, it had to be brought from France. And the technology of making ancient papyri was restored experimentally in the second half of the last century.

Until the 11th century, the papyrus office used papyri, so there are plenty of papyrus scrolls in the halls of the Vatican's library. A that's what else 85 kilometers of classified shelves keep.

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