The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization by John Gaudet

John Gaudet, The Pharaoh’s Treasure: The Origin of Paper and the Rise of Western Civilization (New York: Pegasus Books, 2018).

The following review is the longer form of a review which will be posted on Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Having completed his Ph.D. in Botany at the University of California at Berkeley, John Gaudet primarily worked as an ecologist throughout his career. His early work focused on studying papyrus in Africa, working as an Africa Region Environmental Advisor in the US Agency for International Development, and, most recently, working as a writer and ecology consultant. So, in The Pharaoh’s Treasure, Gaudet attempts to leverage his technical knowledge of botany and ecology for the purpose of writing a history of papyrus. In what follows, I will summarize the book and offer critical reflections on the content of the book.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section is titled “Guardian of Immortality.” It attempts to highlight on how ancient Egyptian paper and books were discovered, along with their cultural significance. The second section is titled “Egypt, Papermaker to the World.” It attempts to highlight the earliest forms of paper, its manufacturing, and how it came to be a central medium for communication in the ancient world. The final section is called “Enemy of Oblivion” and explores a variety of disparate topics.

Throughout the book, many interesting aspects concerning the nature of papyrus, what people thought of papyrus, and how papyrus faded as a central means of communication are revealed to the reader. Nonetheless, I have three primary criticisms concerning the book: the disjunctive character of the narrative; the general poor quality of writing; and the misrepresentation of history, scholarship, and sources.

First, the narrative of the book is, at best, characterized as disjunctive. In Chapter 18, Gaudet discusses Roman libraries. He starts off by addressing a library built in 217 AD. This is followed by discussion of libraries built in the 1st century BCE, 1st century AD, 2nd century AD, and ends in the 4th century AD, noting that “there were twenty-nine public libraries in Rome” (195). After having moved forward chronologically, Gaudet abruptly moves back to discussing libraries from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BCE. This is disjunctive inasmuch as there is not clear chronological or logical trajectory. Instead, Gaudet seems to write all over the place, inattentive to any particular logical trajectory. This is also true with how each chapter links to the previous and proceeding chapter. And, unfortunately, this is only one example of the many disjunctive stories and narratives awkwardly woven together into an uneven, distorted tapestry. Such unevenness makes it difficult to follow the majority of what Gaudet is trying to communicate to the reader(s).

Second, the writing is generally poor in quality. This concerns both the narrative aspects and the structural aspects. Concerning the narrative, a prime example is in his discussion of how a particular manuscript was transported to Rome. He writes, “As he stepped forward, we can only imagine his feelings, as with the greatest of trepidations, he snapped open the sealed latches on the container to reveal the contents” (275-276; italics added for emphasis). In trying to construct the narrative, Gaudet’s comment “we can only imagine his feelings” awkwardly instructs the reader to understand the story in a particular manner. A better, more engaging narrative would exclude the sentence all-together. In other words, he regularly tells his readers what they should experience, instead of allow them to experience it for themselves.

Finally, the book is replete with poor history, scholarship, and sources. For example, he comments that the various Semitic alphabets became the Latin alphabet (63). Though true, his source material for this is Wikipedia! He also cites Wikipedia as an authoritative source in Chapter 9 endnote 13, 15 endnote 9, and 24 endnote 9. Frankly, Wikipedia is the proper source for a research book. Although it may reflect common agreements among academics and within scholarship, proper representation should be sought after in books and articles written by scholars who specialize in the field. Such uses of Wikipedia is a rookie mistake.

Moreover, he lacks an understanding of history. In the following list are a few places demonstrating that his analysis regularly misrepresents history:

– “In this case, a papyrus scroll has trumped many of the previous carved or painted monumental artifacts” (29). Gaudet makes this comment to conclude that papyrus is a better means of communicating than stone or paper. This is, though, a gross misrepresentation of history. Certain mediums were used for communication based on their goals. So, monumental inscriptions on stone sometimes sought to influence the average passerby. Papyrus could never fulfill this function. So even if papyrus “trumped” in helping to preserve certain historical data, it could never trump how stone monuments functioned within history itself.

– “By comparison, another classic document of the seventeenth century B.C. that should have been a best seller, as it had wide importance and application, was Hammurabi’s Code of Law” (44). Gaudet’s comment is silly. It has been well established within scholarship that Hammurabi’s Code of Law was not intended to be legislation in the modern sense. Rather, it was more of a literary creation than anything else. Therefore, to claim that it had wide application is simply poor reading of an ancient text and demonstrates lack of understanding concerning scholarship and history about the text.

– Concerning the popularity of papyrus during the Roman period, Gaudet suggests that the writing on scrolls and subsequent storage of scrolls “began recorded history and the organization of knowledge” (150). This is false or, at best, a misrepresentation of history. Prior to the emergence of the Roman empire, we have thousands of cuneiform sources, many of which come from family archives. Such archives were preserved for thousands of years. Likewise, the famous library of Assurbanipal contained many magical-medical documents, letters, myths, and other types of texts. These were organized within the library. Such organization of texts suggests that the notion of Roman papyrus storage being the “beginning” of history is silly. Moreover, a brief look at cuneiform texts from the 2nd millennium further demonstrates that such a claim is utterly false.

– Gaudet cites Isaiah 19:4-7, which describes paper reeds as withering away and being no more. He subsequently comments that he was “amazed to read this prophecy in the Bible. Athough the timeframe referred to by Isaiah dealth with that part of the Old Testament that took place in the eigth century B.C.,… he seemed also to be predicting what would happen in a relatively modern age… if his prophecy were fulfilled in later times, as it was, there would never be any doubt that he was referring to a plant so important that before its demise, it had influenced the economic and aesthetic well-being of the Western world” (265). My concern here is that he seems to be expressing that, perhaps, the prophetic literature, namely the book of Isaiah, actually prophesied the demise of papyrus. Frankly, this is not history. Such a claim, or even suggestion, has no place in a book purporting to tell a history of papyrus. His comment seems mainly theologically and ideologically motivated.

–  Through the book, Gaudet presses the claims that papyrus gave rise to Western civilization. Consider, for example, his statement: “Luckily for the written word, papyrus paper arrived in about 3000 B.C. just in time to help kick-start Western civilization and literature as we know it. From then on, as cuneiform clay tablets faded into the background, the world could breathe easier as words became as transmittable and as easy to spread as the scrolls they were written on” (12). This claim is simply a wrong representation of history. First, he argues that papyrus kicked started the start of Western civilization; however, Gaudet never makes a cogent or coherent argument for the claim. That is to say, papyrus may have played an important role in the origins of Western civilization; however, he provides no reasoning as to why it, in particular, kick started Western civilization. Second, Gaudet claims that clay tablets faded into the background. Simply put, this is wrong. In fact, some of the most extensive, though relatively not well researched, period for cuneiform tablets is the Neo-Babylonian period (6th century BCE). Taken together, this example illustrate how Gaudet pairs poor argumentation for a claim with a flawed understanding of history and historical sources.

– Discussing Moses, Gaudet notes that portable records would be appreciated by Moses, a “point that Moses would come to appreciate when we was commanded to appears in 12000 B.C. at God’s bidding atop Mount Sinai” (21). Such a claim is problematic as Moses’ reality is not demonstrable anywhere outside of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, the narrative about Moses is not history – it is tradition. He continues: “Since the Torah also recounts the creation of the world and the origin of the people of Israel, their descent into Egypt, and the drafting of the Torah on Mount Sinai, it is in part or whole a significant undertaking, composed of many pages. If Moses had turned to a chisel and hammer, it may never have happened. Instead, he must have searched for a scroll of papyrus paper… We know that at a later date, among the Gnostic documents,” namely early Christian documents, “there is reference to God as having a pen of gold. Whether Moses was so equipped, we don’t know, or whether God loaned him His pen we are ignorant, but according to the story when he came down the mountain carrying tow tablets in his arms he must have had a copy of the Torah written out on a paper scroll sequestered someplace in the folds of his robe” (21). The problem of Moses’ historical reality aside, the claim that Moses must have written the Torah on papyrus is incredibly problematic. First, there is nothing in the book of Exodus suggesting that Moses wrote anything on papyrus. Second, it methodological wrong to use documents written from early Christianity in order to illuminate what happened historically. Though he would be justified in claim that the early Gnostic documents demonstrate how pervasive and important papyrus was within early Christianity as a medium for communication, his claim goes too far. One cannot use early Christian literature in order to insert ideas into texts written and composed at least 800 years prior.

Although this review is lengthy, it is because I hope to demonstrate how Gaudet’s work is full of problems, ranging from representation of history to writing quality. And though no book is perfect, I may still recommend them. In the case of The Pharaoh’s Treasure, I do not recommend anybody read this volume. The only helpful and interesting chapter simply described the papyrus plant, where it is from, and how it is produced. In other words, the only chapter worth reading is the chapter which discusses Gaudet’s expertise. History, though, is by no means Gaudet’s expertise.

In fact, a review of his first book entitled Papyrus expresses the same problem: “the plant’s history is not especially well-conveyed in the book’s scattershot opening chapters, which confusingly mix a history of papyrus use and mythology in ancient Egypt with tales of 19th- and 20th-century European explorers in Africa, plus such present-day swamp-dwellers as Louisiana’s Cajuns” (Kirkus Reviews). It seems, then, that all Gaudet has accomplished in his newer book, The Pharaoh’s Treasure, is expand the scattershot, confusing mix of history with modern tales of explorers into a full length book with a scattershot of confusing history and modern European tales.