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At a very early period, the Egyptians learned
how to make a sort of paper, which is now universally known by the name
of "papyrus." When they made this discovery cannot be said, but the
hieroglyphic inscriptions of the early dynasties contain the picture of
a roll of papyrus, and the antiquity of the use of papyrus must
therefore be very great. Among the oldest dated examples of inscribed
papyrus may be noted some accounts which were written in the reign of
King Assa (fourth dynasty, 3400 B.C.), and which were found at Sakkarah,
about 20 miles to the south of Cairo.
Papyrus was made from the papyrus plant that grew and flourished in the
swamps and marshes of Lower Egypt, and in the shallow pools that were
formed by the annual Nile flood. It no longer grows in Egypt, but it is
found in the swamps of the Egyptian Sudan, where it grows sometimes to
a height of 25 feet. The roots and the stem, which is often thicker than
a man's arm, are used as fuel, and the head, which is large and rounded,
is in some districts boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The Egyptian
variety of the papyrus plant was smaller than that found in the Sudan,
and the Egyptians made their paper from it by cutting the inner part of
the stem into thin strips, the width of which depended upon the
thickness of the stem; the length of these varied, of course, with the
length of the stem. To make a sheet of papyrus several of these strips
were laid side by side lengthwise, and several others were laid over
them crosswise. Thus each sheet of papyrus contained two layers, which
were joined together by means of glue and water or gum. Pliny, a Roman
writer, states (Bohn's edition, vol. iii. p. 189) that Nile water,
which, when in a muddy state, has the peculiar qualities of glue, was
used in fastening the two layers of strips together, but traces of gum
have actually been found on papyri. The sheets were next pressed and
then dried in the sun, and when rubbed with a hard polisher in order to
remove roughnesses, were ready for use.[1] By adding sheet to sheet,
rolls of papyrus of almost any length could be made. The longest roll in
the British Museum is 133 feet long by 16-1/2 inches high (Harris
Papyrus, No. 1), and the second in length is a copy of the Book of the
Dead, which is 123 feet long and 18-1/2 inches high; the latter contains
2666 lines of writing arranged in 172 columns. The rolls on which
ordinary compositions were written were much shorter and not so high,
for they are rarely more than 20 feet long, and are only from 8 to 10
inches in height.

A roll of papyrus when not in use was kept in shape by a string or piece
of papyrus cord, which was tied in a bow; sometimes, especially in the
case of legal documents, a clay seal bearing the owner's name was
stamped on the cord. Valuable rolls were kept in wooden cases or "book
boxes," which were deposited in a chamber or "house" set apart for the
purpose, which was commonly called the "house of books," _i.e._ the
library. Having now described the principal writing materials used by
the ancient Egyptians, we may pass on to consider briefly the various
classes of Egyptian Literature that have come down to us.