Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

WHETHER Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) really did invent the typesetting mould for casting individual letters or not - doubts have been raised - it is traditional to hail printing as the world's single greatest technological advance. But one has to have something to print on. What about paper?

'Papyrus', a form of sedge, is a Greek word, possibly derived from the Egyptian for `belonging to Pharaoh'. (Was its production a royal monopoly?) There are 2,200 species of sedge found all over the world. It could be eaten (`bake in a hot oven', recommends Herodotus - yum, yum), and its stalks woven into rope or lashed together to make boats and huts. But its major use in antiquity was as paper. The manufacturing process is described by the elder Pliny (killed investigating the Vesuvius eruption, AD 79) in his Natural History: extract the pith, lay the strips crosswise, press and dry. Sheets glued together made a roll anything up to 35 ft long. The average roll held a 1,500-line Greek play.

The earliest papyrus roll we possess comes from an Egyptian tomb dated 3000 BC. It is - delicious irony blank. We first hear of its spread abroad . 1100 BC, when an Egyptian priest, Wen-Amon, ships 500 fine-quality rolls to Phoenicia (the need to adapt cuneiform to a pen-and-ink script played a large part in the Phoenicians' development of a proto-alphabet). …

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