Discover the Ancient Egyptian Papyrus
In ancient Egypt the papyrus plant was the symbol of Lower Egypt, the Delta area, where is grew widely. Nowadays, like much of the ancient Egyptian flora and fauna, it has retreated far to the south of the country and is now only grown in Egypt in special areas to provide material for the tourist trade. The papyrus hieroglyph used in conjunction with a bee hieroglyph reads nsw bt, ‘King of Upper and Lower Egypt’.
A Versatile Commodity
The papyrus plant had many uses, bundles could be tied together to make a light skiff or boat, it could me made into rope or used to caulk ships. The plant has a triangular stem and to produce a writing material it was first soaked and its outer skin stripped off; it was then cut into long thin slices, normally no more than about 45 cm in length. The strips were beaten with a wooden mallet, flattening the fibre. Then the strips were laid alternately in horizontal and vertical fashion, beaten again so that the pith coalesced and the whole left under weights to dry. The squares of papyrus thus produced could then be stuck together to make rolls of various lengths. The longest known papyrus is 41 m in length – the Great Harris papyrus in the British Museum, a sort of ‘Domesday Book’ of Egypt from the reign of Ramesses IV (1151- 1145 BC) in the 20th Dynasty.
The oldest written papyri are temple accounts written in hieratic of the 5th Dynasty from the Abusir, c. 2330 BC. Papyrus was a costly writing material so in ancient Egypt limestone flakes (ostraka) or potsherds were normally used for notes, accounts, letters, schoolboy exercises, etc. Valuable texts, religious or documentary, would be carefully written on the rolls of papyrus by well trained scribes. Amongst the finest examples of papyri to survive are so-called Books of the Dead, consisting of a series of Chapters relating to aspects of the Afterlife, well known chapters being Chapter 6 – the shabti chapter; Chapter 30B, the Chapter of the heart, and Chapter 125. The two finest examples of Books of the Dead are in the British Museum and belonged to the Royal Scribe Ani, and to a man named Hunefer, both 19th Dynasty date in the 13th century BC.
Fragments of papyri have been recovered from late mummy cartonnage where discarded portions were used as a kind of paper mâché to make the cartonnage. The Graeco-Roman cities of the Fayum area have been most productive of papyri, especially the site of Oxyrhynchos where literally thousands of papyri and fragments were found discarded in the town’s rubbish heap, and annually published volumes still continue to publish them. Their content varies widely, including much of a domestic nature such as accounts, letters, wills, etc, but there are also highly important portions of classical authors, texts and plays, have also been found there.
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