5 May 2019


John Gaudet, The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization. Amberley, 2019

John Gaudet loves paper. I mean really loves paper. Especially papyrus. And rid yourself of the idea that papyrus isn’t proper paper: he seems to take it as a personal affront when it’s treated as something different to the wood- and rag-pulp stuff we use today, writing that such a view ‘does a disservice to a medium that served human civilisation so well for thousands of years and deserves its own special spot in the pantheon of intellectual history, alongside the invention of the personal computer and the Gutenberg press.’

He points out that the modern word probably (though not certainly) derives ultimately from the ancient Egyptian pa-per-aa, ‘that of the pharaoh’, pharaohs having a monopoly on its production. To make the point that papyrus really is paper – OK? - Gaudet calls the different kinds ‘papyrus paper’ and ‘pulp paper’.

He also castigates Dan Brown for claiming in The Da Vinci Code that papyrus dissolves in vinegar – surely one of the more abstruse of the many criticisms levelled at that novel – and that, as a result, ‘papyrus paper is now diminished in the eyes of the public.’

Gaudet, an ecologist by profession who has written for Nature and the Huffington Post among others, has already produced one book on his passion (2014’s Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World) and he’s travelled all over Africa studying it growing.

His aim in The Pharoah’s Treasure is to ‘restore the balance’ in favour of papyrus in the history of paper-making and "to identify the earliest paper as a key element of global cultural advancement." It tells the story of papyrus – sorry, papyrus paper – from its invention to its replacement by pulp paper, a history that takes us from the Neolithic to Gutenberg and which, Gaudet says, has never been told before. The bulk of the book’s 300 pages is devoted to the 4000 years (3100 BC to 900 AD) in which papyrus reigned supreme.

It’s one of those books where the reader’s view depends on whether they find the author’s enthusiasm infectious or geeky indulgence. I’ll admit that I started among the latter, but in the end Gaudet won me over. (To give a flavour of Gaudet’s over-attention to detail, when he sets himself to calculating how much papyrus paper was produced during that 4000 years, he comes up with what he calls a ‘rough estimate’ of 157,807 tons.)

Papyrus paper was a ‘key element in cultural advancement’ that, Gaudet argues, set humans free, being "the first innovation that allowed for the true expansion of the human intellect and its creative, expressive, and even moral possibilities." He has a point: while a lot of attention has been given to the vital importance of writing as a factor in the origins and spread of civilisation, without a plentiful, lightweight and cheap disposable medium for writing on, things wouldn’t have got very far; stone, bone and clay tablets have their limits.

Without such a material, the planning, organisation and execution of, for example, the building of the Great Pyramid would have been nigh-on impossible. Indeed, the earliest known written document is by one of Khufu’s inspectors who was in charge of organising the quarrying and transport of the pyramid’s limestone casing. For Gaudet, paper was "far more important than Khufu or his pyramid."

Similarly, the Roman Empire couldn’t have been run without papyrus. A failure of the papyrus crop in Egypt – the only place where it grew – could bring the Empire to a shuddering halt.

It was also instrumental in the spread of Christianity, the first Christians such as Paul being compulsive letter-writers and compilers of books; as Gaudet asks, "Where would the early Christians have been without papyrus paper?" Christians were also responsible for the switch from scroll to codex, as they – unusually – favoured the bound-book format (perhaps because it was easier for evangelisers to carry and to hide at times of persecution).


Added to all this is papyrus’ value for historians. It is (despite what Dan Brown says) a great survivor, at least in dry, hot conditions, and much of our knowledge of the ancient past is due to its durability. If, for example, the Nag Hammadi texts had been written on pulp paper they would have been lost to us.

The book is divided into three parts. The first describes papyrus paper’s development and the various uses - mathematical, medical, literary and religious - to which it was put in ancient Egypt. The second looks at the production of papyrus and the impact it had beyond Egypt, especially on the Roman Empire. The last part takes the story through its decline after the fall of the Empire made its supply, particularly in northern Europe, erratic, leading to its replacement with parchment and its eventual eclipse by pulp paper. I was surprised at how long this took: the last papal bull written on papyrus was in 1083, and the last Arab document four years later.

As the subtitle makes clear, the book is very much about paper’s place in the history of the West. Although the Chinese came up with wood-pulp paper in the 8th century BC – inspired by observing the way wasps and hornets made their nests – their centuries of paper-making are only given a couple of pages in flashback, when the Arabs learned the technique from China in the 9th century AD and, improving the quality by using linen and rags, brought pulp paper, via Spain, to Europe.

For me, and I suspect for most readers (and with all due apologies to Mr Gaudet) the book’s main interest isn’t so much in the paper itself as what it was used for - the literature, religious texts such as the Book of the Dead, the recording and storage of information and knowledge, and the official and personal letters that bring the past alive for us – as well as all the things that went with it, such as the development of a scribal class and the founding of libraries. There are some fascinating chapters on the great libraries of Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople, as well as the private libraries of wealthy, image-conscious Romans, such as that of the ‘Villa dei Papira’ discovered in Pompeii (and still not fully excavated).

There’s an enormous amount of detail and minutiae – everything you want to know (and more) about the growing and crop management of the papyrus plant, the manufacture of the various qualities of papyrus paper, how to make the inks used by Egyptian scribes, the writing systems, the economics of the ancient papyrus trade, and so on – with plentiful tables, diagrams and charts.

Although there are many fascinating episodes and snippets in the telling of the tale, there are also digressions and discussions of peripheral matters that make the book longer than it should be. For example, there are sections on the controversial discoveries of the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, which only seem to be included because they were written on papyrus. The same goes for a discussion of the ‘mystery’ of why so few of the Dead Sea Scrolls (just 15 per cent) are papyrus, the majority being on parchment (Gaudet’s less-than-startling conclusion being that it’s because the Qumran community didn’t have access to a supply of papyrus).

Nevertheless, the story Gaudet tells is an engrossing one. If you are inspired to buy a copy, though, go for the print version; something tells me he wouldn’t approve of the Kindle.-- Clive Prince

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