Thursday, June 10, 2010

Papyrus

I was helping Erin prep for a class she was teaching at art camp about ancient Egypt. The students were going to make papyrus. However, since they're kids they couldn't do the entire process. Enter prep. Here's how the process works:

You cut a stalk of papyrus grass out of the ground and remove the top because the leaves and seeds get in your way. Next you strip off the outer green layer (kind of like the grass equivalent of bark). Then you expose the grass equivalent of wood on the inside. You cut this woody stuff into strips that are as thin as your knife allows. Next the thin sheets are laid side by side in 2 layers; one of the layers is horizontal and the other is vertical. The modern way of making the paper involves putting the 2 layers between newspaper and laying a heavy book on top. I'm sure the ancients were able to find heavy things to lay on top, but I don't know what they used instead of newspaper...I'm guessing cotton.

Anyway, at the end of this process I was thinking...HOW did someone come up with this idea? Was there prize money for the first person to invent paper? I mean, it's far from obvious that this grass can be written on. I wonder if the paper making technology built on some other form of technology. Maybe the grass was used in another application and one day someone chopped a piece with a knife then the piece dried and there was a eureka moment. I doubt the discovery process is documented. It's kind of fun to come up with your own scenarios when you don't know. I have one more idea:

Maybe Egyptians tried to eat the grass. They peeled it and it didn't cook up right as the entire stalk. Someone had the idea that they could cut it into thin strips to make it cook better. Some of it didn't get cooked, was laying on a plate and someone stacked all the dirty dishes on top of it. The dishwasher discovered the paper the next day.
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