The use of papyrus, the chief material for the production of books in ancient Egypt, is at least as old as the use of clay.
The papyrus book is more of a direct descendent of the codex than the clay tablet. The papyrus plant, a member of the
sedge family, was used for various purposes since at least 3,500 B.C.E., including decoration, sails, floor mats, cloth,
fuel, and food. Entire boats were manufactured from the stocks of papyrus plants. The format of papyrus books was
usually a roll or scroll, but papyrus codices were also made for about 300 years after the 1st century C.E. Papyrus is more
“paper-like” than clay; in fact, the word “paper” derives from “papyrus.” Pliny’s Natural History best describes the ancient
process of making the Cyperus papyrus into a writing material. After cutting the papyrus stems into strips, the ancient
Egyptians soaked them in the Nile River, supposedly to activate a natural glue in the pitch to help hold the pieces
together. One thin layer of overlapping strips was covered with a second layer at right angles, thus giving the finished
sheets of papyrus a woven appearance when held up to the light. Before use, the sheets were smoothed down with a
shell or a smooth stone, resulting in sheets that were a bit heavier than modern bond paper. A glutinator then used a
paste to join the sheets to form a roll, or “scapus.” Typical rolls of about 15 feet were comprised of about 20 sheets.
Papyrus was graded and sold according to its size and quality, and ranged from charta hieratica” (the widest) to charta
emporetica (common packing material).
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As part of UNESCO’s campaign to save
the historic monuments in Nubia,
Argentina issued a 4-peso stamp on 14
September 1963, depicting Queen
Nefertari offering papyrus flowers to
the goddess of beauty, Isis (omitted
from the stamp), a scene based upon a
painting in Nefertari's tomb at Abu
Simbel. Papyrus as a writing material,
however, is not made from the flowers,
but from the stems on which the
flowers grow (Argentina Scott #750).
This stamp is one of six values depicting
the “History of Writing” that was issued
on 4 June 1965 in connection with the
Vienna International Philatelic
Exhibition (WIPA). A wall painting a
Thebes serves as background, but
hieroglyphics written on a frayed piece of
papyrus is the main focus of the stamp.
The characteristic woven nature of
papyrus is clearly evident (Austria Scott
One value in a 3-value set
commemorating literary treasures in
libraries of the DDR depicts the Ebers
Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text
written in hieroglyphics, ca 1600 B.C.E.
(German Democratic Republic Scott
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