In 2013, French Egyptologist Pierre Tallet discovered in an excavation site near the Red Sea “entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still relatively intact, written in hieroglyphics as well as hieratic, the cursive script the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication,” Alexander Stille writes at Smithsonian. The scrolls contained the “Diary of Merer,” the journals of an official who led a transportation crew, and who observed the building of the largest of the pyramids. It has been called “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.”
The discovery of the diary entries and other papyri at the site “provide a never-before-seen snapshot of the ancients putting finishing touches on the Great Pyramid.” It is also significant since Tallet found “the oldest known papyri in the world” and has helped give researchers greater insight into how papyrus was used by ancient Egyptians for careful record-keeping — in both the language of priests and scribes and that of ordinary merchants — since around 3000 BC.
Papyrus was “produced exclusively in Egypt, where the papyrus plant grew” notes University of Michigan Libraries, but “papyrus (the writing material) was exported throughout the classical world, and it was the most popular writing material for the ancient Greeks and Romans,” becoming the most used platform for writing by the first century AD. That changed with the introduction of parchment and, later, paper; “the large plantations in Egypt which used to cultivate high-grade papyrus for manufacture disappeared,” as did the knowledge of papyrus-making for around 1000 years.
But papyrus (the paper) has come back, even if wild papyri plants are disappearing as Egypt’s climate changes. While scholars in the 20th century tried, unsuccessfully, to reconstruct papyrus-making using ancient sources like Pliny’s Natural History, Egyptian craftspeople in the 1970s reinvented the process using their own methods, as you can see in the Business Insider video above. “The industry thrived, selling papyrus art to tourists,” the video notes, but it has fallen on hard times as the plants go extinct and demand falls away.
Learn above how modern Egyptian papyrus-makers, scribes, and illustrators ply their trade — a fairly good indicator of how the ancients must have done it. There may be little demand for papyrus, or for parchment, for that matter, and maybe paper will finally go the way of these obsolete communications technologies before long. But as long as there are those who retain the knowledge of these arts, we’ll have an intimate physical connection to the writers, artists, and bureaucrats of empires past.