Papyrus

Ancient Egyptian papyrus was made into rolls by overlapping and gluing strips of the papyrus plant, creating durable and easily transportable scrolls for written texts that were vital for administrative, religious, and literary purposes. Easy and cheap to produce, papyrus was one of the most important cornerstones of the government of ancient Egypt.

Papyrus plant
Papyrus plant

Writing hieroglyphs on papyrus was cumbersome and time consuming, so the much easier and faster to write cursive hieroglyphs were developed. However, it was still relatively slow, which ultimately lead to the very fast hieratic script.

The manufacturing of papyrus involves several steps, from harvesting the raw material to creating the final writing surface. Pliny the elder wrote about the process already in the first century (Natural History, 13.23). Papyrus is made from the Cyperus papyrus plant Papyrus plant (Gardiner sign M13) (wꜢḏ) or Papyrus plant (Gardiner sign M15) (dyt), which still grows in marshy areas along the Nile. The traditional process of making papyrus went something like this:

The outer green layer of the stem is removed, leaving the inner white pith or stalk. The white pith is cut into long strips that are then split into thinner layers using a sharp tool, creating long, flexible ribbons that are soaked in water to soften the fibers and makes them more pliable. The soaked strips are laid out side by side, slightly overlapping, on a flat surface. The arrangement of the strips forms a layer for the width of the desired papyrus sheet.

Another layer of strips is placed perpendicular to the first layer, creating a crosshatch pattern. Using a mallet, the layers are then hammered to further facilitate bonding. The sheet is left to dry in the sun where the natural sugars in the papyrus act as a glue, binding the strips together. Once dried, the papyrus sheet is polished with a smooth, hard object, such as a shell or a piece of ivory, to create a smooth and even surface for writing. The resulting papyrus was pure white in colour and, if carefully produced, free of spots, stains, and other flaws.

The process of making papyrus rolls Tied papyrus roll (Gardiner sign Y1) or Open papyrus roll (Gardiner sign Y2) (mḏꜢt) involved taking individual sheets of papyrus and joining the longer sides together to create a continuous scroll. While still fresh, they employed a sort of glue to join and reinforce the bond between the sheets. This adhesive substance helped create a stronger and more durable connection between the overlapping papyrus sheets. The process involved beating or tapping the surface to ensure that the sheets were firmly joined. The resulting papyrus sheets serve as the writing material scribes would use reed pens and ink to write on.

The number of sheets on a roll and the size of each sheet were regulated but varied across the kingdom’s different periods. Up to 20 of these sheets were then pasted together to make a roll.

The combination of glue and the use of mallets played a crucial role in creating a sturdy and well-bonded papyrus sheet. This was especially important for scrolls that needed to withstand handling, rolling, and unrolling without significant wear and tear. The production of papyrus scrolls required a skilled artisan who understood the properties of papyrus and the techniques needed to create a high-quality writing surface. The use of glue and mallets demonstrated the Egyptians’ ingenuity in developing methods to enhance the durability of their writing material.

While the specific details of these techniques might not be fully preserved in historical records, archaeological evidence and studies of ancient papyri have provided insights into the sophisticated methods employed by the Egyptians in crafting their scrolls. These practices contributed to the longevity of many surviving ancient Egyptian papyrus texts. The ink used by ancient Egyptian scribes was typically made from a mixture of water, soot, and gum. The gum served as a binder, and the soot provided the black colour. The Egyptian scribes also used red ink, and had both practical and symbolic uses, appearing in administrative documents as well as in religious and ritual contexts. Scribes used reed pens, which were crafted from the stems of certain plants. The reed was shaped into a pen, and the scribe would dip it into the ink to write on the papyrus.

Papyrus had already begun to be displaced in Europe by the less expensive vellum, or parchment, by the third century, but the use of papyrus for books and papers continued intermittently until the 12th century.

Scribes

In ancient Egypt, scribes Scribe’s palette (Gardiner sign Y3), (sesh) were highly educated individuals who played a crucial role in the administrative, religious, and intellectual life of the society. They were responsible for tasks such as record-keeping, drafting legal documents, and maintaining religious texts.

Scribes underwent formal education in specialized schools that focused on teaching reading, writing, mathematics, and other skills necessary for administrative and clerical tasks. The training was rigorous and involved a long period of education, typically starting at a young age. These schools were often associated with temples or administrative centres, where the scribes received training under the guidance of experienced teachers. The ability to read and write hieratic, and to some degree hieroglyphs, as well as mastering the complex administrative and legal scripts was crucial for scribes working in civil service offices.

Scribes were held in high esteem in ancient Egypt

Temples were significant centres of education and administration in ancient Egypt. Scribes were closely associated with temple activities, as they played a key role in recording religious rituals, managing temple finances, and maintaining sacred texts. They participated in the production and preservation of religious literature, including hymns, prayers, and magical spells.

Employed in various governmental offices and administrative centres, they were responsible for maintaining records related to taxation, land ownership, legal matters, and other administrative functions. Scribes were held in high esteem in ancient Egyptian society, and their work was considered prestigious and essential for the functioning of the state and religious institutions. Sons of scribes inherited their fathers’ civic position.

The Egyptians wrote with a brush made from the stem of a rush called Juncus maritimus, which still thrives in Egypt’s saline marshes.

Scribes in the royal courts played essential roles in documenting royal decrees, managing correspondence, and maintaining records of the pharaoh’s activities. The highest-ranking scribes might have had the privilege of serving the pharaoh directly and participating in the administration of the kingdom. While most scribes served in institutional settings, some were employed in private households, especially by individuals who required assistance with correspondence, legal matters, or other administrative tasks. The military also required scribes, where they kept military records, documenting campaigns, and managing logistics.

There were also workshops where copies of texts were produced. These workshops were responsible for creating multiple copies of religious and literary texts, contributing to the dissemination of knowledge. Some larger institutions, such as temple complexes, may have had libraries where scribes could access and study a wide range of texts.

The Hieratic

Hieratic writing was a cursive script of simplified and connected characters used in ancient Egypt. It could be written quickly on papyrus, making it practical and very suitable for everyday use, unlike hieroglyphics, which took a long time to write. It was mainly used for religious, administrative and literary texts.

The scribe would carefully copy the text from the original source onto the prepared papyrus following a predetermined layout and formatting, replicating the organization of the original text. This process required precision and attention to detail to avoid errors and might involve the use of columns, headings, and other structural elements.

In some cases, especially for religious or important texts, the scribe might include decorative elements and illustrations. These could range from simple designs to elaborate scenes. After completing the copy, the scribe might review the text for errors. Corrections could be made directly on the papyrus, and in some cases additional notes. Once the copying and corrections were done, the papyrus sheet could be rolled into a scroll if the text was lengthy.

The production of copies involved manual reproduction by scribes. Each copy was produced individually, and skilled scribes were valued for their ability to create accurate and aesthetically pleasing duplicates. In some cases, workshops specialized in the reproduction of texts. Multiple scribes could collaborate in such workshops to produce copies more efficiently. Copies of texts were distributed to various locations, including temples, libraries, and private collections. This dissemination contributed to the preservation and accessibility of important literary, religious, and administrative texts.

Copying manuscripts by hand is a meticulous task, and scribes could make unintentional mistakes. These errors might include misspelling words, omitting or duplicating lines, or misinterpreting the original text. Over time, papyri deteriorate due to exposure to the elements, pests, or simple aging. This can lead to the loss or distortion of text, making it difficult to accurately interpret the original content. In some cases, individuals may intentionally alter or forge a manuscript to serve a particular agenda or to create a more valuable document. This could involve adding or removing content, changing the wording, or modifying details to suit the forger’s purposes.

Papyri are also vulnerable to damage from water or fire, which can result in the destruction or alteration of the text. Water damage may cause ink to run or pages to stick together, while fire damage can char or consume portions of the manuscript. The quality of ink used can affect its longevity. If the ink fades or bleeds over time, it can make the text illegible or altered.

Insects can damage papyri by feeding on it, leading to the loss of content. Additionally, their excrement can stain or obscure the text. Mold and mildew can grow on papyri, especially if stored in damp conditions. This can result in the decay of the material and make the text difficult to read for example, tearing, folding, or creasing pages can result in the loss of text or make it challenging to decipher.

Human error

Human error is a significant factor contributing to the potential corruption of hand-written manuscripts. Scribes, who were responsible for copying texts in ancient times, were skilled individuals, but they were not immune to mistakes.

Copying texts by hand is a labour-intensive and meticulous process. In the course of copying, there are many ways errors could be introduced, such as skipping lines, omitting words, or duplicating phrases. These mistakes might be unintentional, but they can introduce variations into different manuscript copies. Scribes might encounter difficulties in understanding the content of the text they were copying, especially if it was written in an unfamiliar language or used archaic expressions. Misinterpretations could lead to the introduction of errors as the scribe attempted to make sense of the original material.

Scribes may have inadvertently substituted one word for another due to their phonetic or visual resemblance, leading to semantic changes in the text. Words could be spelt in many different ways, there does not seem to have existed any standardized spelling rules, and different schools or individual scribes might have had their own conventions. Consequently, variations could result in spelling of words within a single manuscript or across different copies of the same text.

Dittography occurs when a scribe unintentionally repeats a sequence of letters or words. Haplography, on the other hand, is the accidental omission of a repeated letter or word. Both phenomena can alter the intended meaning of a sentence or passage.

Copying texts by hand often introduce errors

Skipping lines or repeating portions of text due to a momentary lapse of attention or visual oversight is also possible, leading to the introduction of inaccuracies or omissions in the copy. Fatigue, especially when working for extended periods, could lead to a decline in concentration and an increased likelihood of making errors.

Sometimes mistakes were noticed after completing a portion of the manuscript and attempts to correct them could introduce new errors or lead to inconsistencies in the text. Words were often abbreviated to save time and space. However, misinterpretation or misapplication of these abbreviations could result in errors, especially if there were variations in the conventions used by different scribes or regions.

When later scribes copied existing manuscripts, they might introduce errors while transcribing the text. These errors could compound over successive copies, leading to further corruption.

Understanding the potential for human error is crucial for scholars engaged in textual criticism, a field that aims to reconstruct the most accurate version of a text by comparing different manuscript copies and identifying variations. This process helps researchers discern the original wording and meaning of a text despite the inevitable errors introduced by scribes throughout history. As usual, non-professionals without specialized knowledge can only marvel at the skills of the professionals.

It’s important to note that the study of ancient manuscripts involves careful consideration of these potential sources of corruption. Scholars and historians use various techniques, such as textual criticism, to identify and correct errors, understand the context, and reconstruct the most accurate version of the original text.

The codex format refers to a type of book characterized by pages bound together on one side, forming a more book-like structure compared to the scroll. While the widespread adoption of the codex format occurred later, during the late Roman and early Christian periods, its roots can be traced back to antiquity.