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Papyrii: Paving The Path To Innovation

Papyrus, from which the English word “paper” is derived, is the writing material of ancient times. The name comes from the aquatic plant Cyperus papyrus, also known as paper plant. This plant was indigenous of the Nile delta region in Egypt and it was collected mainly for its stalks. The central pith of those stalks were cut, pressed and finally dried to form a thin smooth writing surface.  Ancient Egyptians had also found a number of other uses for the stem of the papyrus plant including; the making of sails, cloth, mats, ropes, window shades, and sandals. The papyrus paper was the main writing material in ancient Egypt, and later it was adopted by the Greeks and the Roman Empire. It was used for correspondence, legal documents and for the production of books in the form of rolled up scrolls.

The papyrus paper was highly regarded during that time, to the extent that not everyone was allowed to use them so as not to “waste” such valuable material. Instead, commoners and school learners were to use the cheap writing materials which were ostraca (broken pieces of ceramic) and pieces of wood. Papyrus was only used by the experienced scribes who mastered the art of writing for it was used for hymns, religious texts, letters, official documents, medical texts, scientific manuals, record-keeping and literature. In this article, we will be going through some of the most significant papyri that contain valuable amounts of knowledge from which many of the modern day sciences developed.

The Ebers Papyrus (Medicine)

Existing scrolls range in size from fragments to one page to the famous 110 pages, 20 meters long medical Ebers Papyrus. The medical text of the Ebers Papyrus is often referred to as evidence of the interrelation between medicine and magic in ancient Egypt. This Papyrus along with many other scrolls demonstrate the vast medical knowledge and skill of the ancient Egyptians, for those scrolls show how they addressed injuries, ailments and serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer. They even addressed mental conditions such as anxiety, depression and trauma, as well as the field of gynaecology to include topics like abortion, birth control and infertility.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus (Medicine – Surgery)

Another famous medical document is the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which is considered as the world’s oldest surviving surgical document. It was written in hieratic script (the Egyptian cursive form of hieroglyphs) around 1600 BCE. Named after the dealer who bought it in 1862, the Edwin Smith Papyrus explains 48 cases of medical problems including injuries, fractures, dislocations, wounds and tumours. The papyrus describes the cases’ anatomical observations, diagnosis, treatment and prognosis in exquisite detail. Among the described methods of treatments are: preventing and curing infection with honey and mouldy bread, stopping bleeding with raw meat, and closing wounds with sutures. What makes the Edwin Smith Papyrus stand out among the four chief medical papyri that survived to the day, is the fact that it displays a rational scientific approach to medicine in ancient Egypt, as opposed to the other papyri whose medical texts are interrelated with magic and spells.

Recto Column 6 (right) and 7 (left) of the Edwin Smith papyrus discussing facial trauma (source)

The ancient Egyptian scribes wrote mainly in black. Red ink was used to mark the start of a new paragraph, to emphasize a word or a passage and in some cases for punctuation.

Moving on from the medical field, but still in the fields of science, two mathematical papyri stand out in particular.

Rhind Mathematical Papyrus

It is named after Alexander Henry Rhind, the Scottish antiquarian who purchased this papyrus in 1858; it is also sometimes referred to as the British Museum Papyrus 10057 and 10058, since that is where most of the papyrus is currently kept. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus is one of the two renowned Mathematical Papyri (the second which we will be discussing shortly). The papyrus is composed of two sections; the first section is 295.5 cm in length and 32 cm in width, while the second section is 199.5 cm in length and 32 cm in width.

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus is divided into 3 books. The first book contains arithmetic and algebra problems. The second book contains problems of geometry; and the third contains miscellaneous problems. In the geometry book, problems 48-55 cover the calculations of different types of areas including the area of circles, rectangles, triangles and trapezoids. This was especially important to them for the lands of ancient Egyptians were agricultural ones, so it helped them calculate the areas of those lands, estimate the amount of produce that they would harvest as well as calculate the taxes that would be enforced on land owners.

Portion of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (source)

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus

Also known as the Golenishchev Mathematical Papyrus (named after its first owner), this papyrus is currently among the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. The Moscow Mathematical papyrus is older than the Rhind Mathematical papyrus, however, being 5.5 m long and 3.8 – 7.6 cm wide, it is overall smaller in size than the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus contains 25 mathematical problems including problems on parts of the ship ( for instance the length of the mast and rudder), problems on finding the unknown (Aha problems), problems calculating the output of workers (Baku problems), algebra problems and geometry problems. Geometry problem number 14 in this papyrus is of special interest. The problem calculates the volume of frustum of square pyramid. This problem’s solution proves that the Egyptians knew the right formula needed to obtain the volume of a truncated pyramid. This formula was of great importance for the ancient Egyptians, as apart from being pioneers in the construction of pyramids; they also constructed smaller pyramids for the purpose of storing their agricultural produce.

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus (source)

The Ancient Egyptian Calendars
Around 5,000 years ago, the Egyptian dating system was the first known calendar to use a year of 365 days which is equal to the solar year and is thus known as the solar calendar. However, prior to the solar calendar they used the lunar calendar which relied upon the phases of the moon, with the new moon marking the beginning of a new month. The lunar calendar consisted of 12 months whose duration differed according to the lunar cycle (29 or 30 days). This made the lunar calendar 10-11 days shorter than the solar year; therefore, a 13th month was inserted every few years to keep the lunar calendar corresponding with the agricultural seasons and feasts. July 19th was the Egyptian New Year, which was the date that the star Sirius reappears on the eastern horizon after being absent for 70 days. It is also the date at which the Nile began to flood.

The Ancient Egyptian Star Chart (source)

When the Egyptian civil calendar (consisting of 12 months, 30 days each) was later introduced and used for their daily lives, the lunar calendar was still maintained for their religious festivals and rituals. Both systems and the Sothic calendar were used throughout the pharaonic period; and later on, the system was revised and it is what forms the basis of the Western calendar that is still used in modern times.

The Ancient Egyptian Calendar (source)

It was more than five thousand years ago that the ancient Egyptian civilization existed. Yet, they managed to pioneer in numerous fields including the medical, mathematical, and cosmological, along with many others. Not only did they excel in those fields, but they provided the foundations and basics of science, which paved the way for the modern day science to evolve. Moreover, the discovery of the papyrus paper played a vital role in disseminating this knowledge and intellect to the present and future generations.

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