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Pharaoh’s Treasure

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Fancy a fascinating dip into some non-fiction history? Here’s a subject you might not have sought out, but one that might capture your fascination. I read the title and the description and simply decided I wanted to know more. It’s not a text I need for research, but like so many good books, it is one that when read will inform everything I ever look at hereafter. It is the history of paper, and with it the written word.

It’s a subject that’s always hovered on the edge of what I do, since the day I wrote about Caesar’s ‘paperwork’ and then panicked about the fact that the Romans didn’t have paper. But did they? Now that’s a question that this book will address. It is informative and interesting, yet despite everything for me the most important value it has is that it has defined the word ‘paper’ and I will cite it forever in my author notes for books.

The book begins with ancient Egypt, as you might guess from the title. The Pharaoh’s Treasure? *Said in a worryingly Rolf Harris voice*: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ Well, without wanting to spoil the book for you, said treasure is the oldest paper ever found, in a box, in a tomb. We move from there to the first written record. No surprises that this is also Egypt, the records of one of the pharaoh Khufu’s administrators. Typical of humanity that the earliest writing found was not left by a playwright or a comedian, but a bureaucrat, eh? Still, an astounding discovery.

There is a lot of focus on the importance of the written word. In Egypt this means the book of the dead and all the burial texts. The Eighteenth to Twentieth centuries unearthed ever increasing numbers of important texts in Egypt. The vital part paper had in the Egyptian world is clear, and the book moves from there into the Judeo-Christian world and the same value that is applied to paper and written records there.

There is some fairly in-depth discussion of the manufacture of papyrus (yes, we get the word paper from it, as the book reminds us), and on its production, which reached an almost industrial scale in later Egypt. We move on from there into Greece and particularly Rome. This is, of course, my specialist subject. Anyone who studies Rome will know that their culture were the first to become almost obsessively bureaucratic, and Rome moves the written word to the next level. Apparently (according to Pliny who lists the different grades of Roman paper) there was even a type of Roman packing paper!

The book then moves on to examine the new value of paper and the written word for fiction, text books, theatre, and on to libraries, the vast trade in writing, in ink, in pens and so forth. The existence of the Great Library. We move on into the Byzantine world, where bureaucracy reaches a peak perhaps unseen in the history of man, and then to the Roman Church, where it’s value and use is blindingly clear.

Then there was something that brought a massive surprise to me. Something that probably made more impact than anything else in the book. The history of paper and the written word changed immeasurably, following the events of a specific battle in the 8th century. I’m not going to spoil that one for you, and I’m not even going to mention the battle or its long-reaching effect. You’ll have to read the book for that.

There is some final rounding up of the data and conclusions, but that’s it. And if you don’t read the book for anything else, I hope you’re intrigued enough about the battle to go for it. It’s a very specifically-aimed book and will be of little direct actual use to most folk, but as a fascinating piece of historical research with some startling conclusions, it is well worth the time. Recommended.

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Written by SJAT

February 7, 2019 at 11:41 pm

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