The first world of paper is the period during which papyrus paper was the standard medium for writing in the Western world. Here, John Gaudet (author of a book on the history of paper: Amazon USAmazon UK) considers the importance of Ancient Egypt in the production of papyrus paper and whether history stood still while papyrus paper was used.

The Heracles Papyrus, containing an ancient illustration on papyrus paper.

The Heracles Papyrus, containing an ancient illustration on papyrus paper.

So, did history stand still during the first world of paper? The short answer of course is that it didn’t, but you’d never know from reading most books on the history of paper.

Many books on the history of paper will tell you that the invention of paper and its development into modern pulp paper began with the Chinese in the early part of the first millennium, which completely ignores the fact that a world of paper existed for thousands of years prior to that. The story of paper really began much earlier, during the time of the ancient people along the River Nile, who had been using paper made from papyrus since nearly 3000 B.C. and would continue to do so until the time of the Crusades. 

The first paper known to man was discovered in Egypt and dates to about 2900 B.C. It was no accident that the Egyptians used the paper reed, papyrus, to make this paper. Papyrus is a sedge, a tall reedy swamp plant that is among the fastest growing, most productive plants on earth. Under the hot sun and cloudless skies of old Egypt, it prospered in the ancient swamps of the Delta, which were millions of acres in size. By chance it was the most common reed in the ancient wetlands that could be used in this way and so its name “paper reed” is both unique as well as well-earned.

Most often reeds, such as those growing in the Mesopotamian floodplains and marshes of the Fertile Crescent, were of little use in those days for making paper. The problem was that making paper from pulp was a process that had yet to be discovered and wouldn’t be until just after the first century A.D. Most reeds, rushes and grasses are stiff, hard and often hollow at maturity. Papyrus stems on the other hand contained a soft pith that could be used to make paper in Egypt using a simple, direct technique. It required nothing more than shaving thin slices from the interior pith of the stem and compressing these slices into thin sheets. These sheets could then be glued together to make rolls. Thus, paper was available in Egypt from the end of the Stone Age and possibly even before. In fact, the Egyptians were not only using paper, but the Greek and Roman civilizations that followed were dependent on it. For thousands of years papyrus paper, made into rolls from sheets, was exported from Egypt to meet an ever growing demand for paper in the West. 

So for millennia papyrus paper was the most commonly used type of paper, and there was already a ‘paper world’ then just as today.


Earliest Writing on Paper

The earliest written paper documents were data sheets found in Egypt that accounted for material used in building the Great Pyramid. These were the world’s first spreadsheets. Egyptians also recorded on paper their first literary effort and maps as well as illustrated books, called, Books of the Dead, which were left in their tombs.

What were the Chinese doing during all this time? They were writing on strips of bone or bamboo that were tied or sewn together into bulky rolls. So the Western world had already made great strides using paper while others were still experimenting.  Yet by the first century, early Christians such as Paul, used papyrus paper to draft letters, epistles and Bibles to propagate their new religion and further the cause of Christianity because that was still the only paper available! 

It wasn’t until the tenth century that Westerners began using pulp paper in any great quantity. During all the intervening time history did not stand still. The Western world had learned to live with and use papyrus paper to write things down, to wrap things up, and to create books, letters, newspapers, and maps. 

Because of this, it has been said that paper was the key element in global cultural advancement. According to this theory, Chinese culture was less developed than the West in ancient times because bamboo, while abundant, was a clumsier writing material than papyrus.

One reason for the popularity of papyrus paper was that unlike tablets made of lead, copper, wax, or clay or writing surfaces made of tree bark or leather, papyrus paper weighed almost nothing and yet was quite durable. It soon became vitally important both economically and culturally. In agriculture, which economists deem a reason for Ancient Egypt’s greatness, tracking crop and food production depended on lightweight paper to process and manage data sets

This medium was the property of the king, since paper manufacture was at that time a royal prerogative. In later years under the Romans the industry was privatized as papyrus paper went on to become the most commonly used information medium in the world. 

Far from fragile, this ancient paper was an especially handy writing surface; books and documents in ancient and early medieval times made from it had a usable life of hundreds of years.


The Earliest Use – Spreadsheets, Really?

How was this paper used in practice? To answer that question we might look first at how we use paper today to record data and events. For that purpose in modern times we use data tables or spreadsheets that help us sort and label data in a way that makes sense, so we can reference it and perform calculations later. We do this because otherwise our brains can’t easily recall data sets. The remarkable thing is that Egyptians recognized this same problem in 3000 B.C. and resolved it in the same way, they invented spreadsheets by drawing lines on papyrus paper to represent the rows and columns now found on modern counterparts.

The oldest diary and account sheets on paper were found by Prof. Tallet of the Sorbonne in 2013. The documents were the work of Inspector Merer, an agent of Pharaoh Khufu. The place of discovery was a remote cave in Wadi el-Jarf, an ancient Egyptian seaport on the Red Sea coast. Some of the documents discovered by Tallet consist of timesheets, grids with horizontal lines subdivided into thirty boxes with columns to record the daily activities of a large team of workers over the course of each month. This mostly concerned their progress in fetching limestone slabs at Tura and delivering them to Giza. The team scribes entered tasks and project goals on lists separated by horizontal lines. At every stage of the operation, a notation of progress or date of completion would be added to track overall progress. Forward progress was definitely needed to satisfy the boss, who was in this case a pharaoh with a reputation for quick and harsh reactions.

It is evident that Merer and his team were important links in the trade and development of Egypt. And this large royal team had to be supplied and fed while on the road. Now, thanks to Tallet, we have detailed daily and monthly accounts kept by the team of the foodstuffs they received and consumed. Local officials had to provide for them since they were on assignment from Pharaoh. The names of those contributing to the maintenance of this team were also entered on the sheets, perhaps serving as an official receipt to let Pharaoh know exactly how the various provinces were carrying out their obligations. There is an entry for every item that had to be delivered to the team. On the papyrus account sheet, alongside the accounting of food and supplies, Merer and his clerks drew three boxes: one to indicate the amount anticipated, then an entry of what was actually delivered, and finally what was still pending. The most complete of these sheets was the delivery record of different types of cereals, or the “account of bread.” 

Does all this sound familiar? Many thought it did. Apparently, four and a half thousand years ago man was just as bad at mentally processing information as today. Based on what he found, Tallet wondered how many other logbooks, data sets and spreadsheets equivalent to that of Merer’s may have been kept by the numerous teams that worked on the Great Pyramid during the 20 or so years that the construction site existed. 

The Great Pyramid is a magnificent creation, a tombstone composed of 2.3 million massive blocks and completed within a comparatively short period, but it is only one of over 120 pyramids that are known to exist in Egypt, each of which must have required a day-by-day account of activities during construction. The usual construction pattern required crews to quarry, transport and deliver hundreds of thousands of stones every year. Each crew, according to Prof. Tallet, amounted to roughly forty men including someone responsible for keeping records. He wondered how many tens of thousands of rolls of papyrus would have been needed to record it all! 


The Real Treasure of the Pharaoh’s – Paper

During early times it is true that the pyramids provided a national economic stimulus and a focus for mobilization of resources, but economists tell us that the real basis for Egypt’s greatness came from agriculture and the management of agricultural production. The Egyptians remeasured and reassigned land after every inundation based on past assignments, they assessed expected crops, and they collected part of the produce as taxes. This was stored or redistributed to those on the state’s payroll. Regional storage facilities with hundreds of storehouses provided produce in case there was a shortfall. All of this was recorded and tracked using spreadsheets, and so the country soon became a nation dependent on lightweight paper to process and manage data sets. 

Paper thus became one of the many basic things that made Egypt the wonder of its age. Spreadsheets of the type used by Merer became invaluable to the Egyptian way of life. It was also the medium used to record the immediate thoughts or sayings of the priests, pronouncements of the kings, property holdings, temple goods and the substance of history in the ancient world. As such, it was far more important than Khufu or his pyramid. In essence it was the pharaoh’s greatest treasure.


What do you think about the importance of papyrus paper? Let us know below.

John Gaudet’s newest book, The Pharaoh’s Treasureis a thought-provoking history of paper—from its origins in Egypt to its spread throughout the world—revealing how it helped usher in a new era of human history. (Pegasus, USA, 2018 distributed by W.W. Norton; Amberley, UK Jan. 2019; and in Chinese in Beijing, summer, 2019). It is available on-line at Amazon USAmazon UKand Barnes & Noble sites and in quality bookstores everywhere.

A Fulbright Scholar to both India and Malaya, John Gaudet is a professional ecologist, environmental advisor, writer and consultant. His work has appeared in the Washington Post,SalonHuffington PostAncient Egypt Magazineand he remains active in African, agricultural, and conservation/environmental agencies. John lives in northern Virginia.

His earlier book, Papyrus, the Plant that Changed the World, published in 2014 by Pegasus, NY introduced us to papyrus, a unique plant, one of the fastest growing plant species on earth. He has shown the world that papyrus is not just a curious relic of our ancient past, but a rescuing force for modern ecological and societal blight. Harvard University’s Belfer Center voted this book the Innovation Book of the Week.

To connect with Gaudet, please visit his website (Http://, Facebook Page or look under Our Authors on the Pegasus Books website. 

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post