Dennis Duncan

Reading the reeds

The discovery of a hoard of bills and billets-doux, on perfectly preserved papyrus, helped unlock many ancient secrets

In 2016, after some unseemly back-and-forth between the Commons and Lords, it was decided that Acts of Parliament should no longer be printed on calfskin. Instead, new acts are now recorded on paper, though, in a classic parliamentary compromise, they will still be bound between vellum covers. Since the first paper mills appeared in Britain at the end of the 15th century —and paper almost immediately became the dominant medium for print — this means that parliament has managed valiantly to hold back the paper tide for over half a millennium. (To be fair, they only stopped writing acts out by hand in 1849, four centuries
after Gutenberg.)

Meanwhile, over the past 15 years, I have come to conduct most of my daily correspondence by email rather than troubling the postal service. I expect you are the same. But I doubt there are many who will be thrilled if their Valentine’s card turns up as an email attachment, and it’s possible that some of us feel a slight wistfulness that our acts of the land are no longer recorded on the same material as Magna Carta. Sometimes, as Marshall McLuhan put it, the medium is the message.

John Gaudet’s The Pharaoh’s Treasure tells the story of papyrus — the chief writing material of the classical period — from its emergence in Egypt, probably in the fourth millennium BC, to its eclipse, by parchment and paper, in the middle of the first millennium AD. Though other materials were used during this period — clay, wax, parchment — it is papyrus that Pliny has in mind when he writes, of first-century Rome: ‘Our civilisation or at all events our records depend very largely on the employment of paper [chartae]’.

It is Pliny too who gives us the best description of how papyrus was made from the tall wetland sedge that was once abundant in the swampland of the Nile delta.

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