Tag Archives: Egypt


Great galloping Agamemnon, we forgot paper! Why didn’t you guys say something?

Those monks hand-wrote their bibles on parchment or vellum, remember? Parchment isn’t cheap. It was Gutenberg’s mission to make bibles affordable, so most of them he printed on paper (just a few he printed on vellum) because paper was way less expensive.


Paper was another one of those Chinese inventions that came to the West along the Silk Road. They started making it around ad 100 (a guy named Ts’ai Lun is credited with paper’s invention). China’s first paper was made from bamboo, which is a reed—like papyrus in Egypt. Just like the Egyptians, they soaked the bamboo after splitting it into strips, then criss-crossed the softened strips into a sheet, pressed and dried it.

This kind of paper is not so good for printing. A printing surface needs to be perfectly smooth, and papyrus-style has ridges from the reed’s strips. To make high-quality paper—the good stuff—takes more work. Chinese papermakers figured out that you can soak the bamboo and other fibrous plants like flax in a vat of water and alkalei to break down their fibers more quickly. Alkalei is an acid you get from wood ash. They also beat the soaking bamboo (maybe like churning butter?) until the whole mess disintegrated into a slurry of plant fibers and water.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Don’t forget: I wrote another Western Civ User’s Guide! Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

Gall and vitriol!

In the world of art supplies, a liquid medium like ink is pigment + binder + solvent. Pigment is color. In iron gall ink, the black pigment is created by the chemical reaction when vitriol (iron sulphate) is added to water that had gall-nuts steeping in it.

The binder holds the ingredients together. You might remember the Egyptians got the sap, or gum, from acacia trees which they dried and ground into powder—Gum Arabic. Gum Arabic is the binder for iron gall ink. The powder is mixed with vinegar before adding it to the inky water.

The acid from gall-nuts (and vinegar, too) eats into the vellum very slightly, so the pigment stays put.

Water is the solvent. You can thin iron gall ink with water. After it dries, though, it’s waterproof. If you goof you have to scrape it off with a knife.

Here are links to iron gall ink recipes:

Isn’t she wonderful? This lady found a medieval recipe for iron gall ink and decided to cook it up herself:

Here’s where you can get the ingredients online. CHECK WITH YOUR PARENTS before you start playing with caustic chemicals that can burn a hole through the kitchen counter, you weirdos!


There’s a charm in the old words of these recipes. They were once used to describe chemicals and today they describe attitude or a way of speaking or acting:
vitriol https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vitriol
gall https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gall

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Iron gall ink

Hatched gall wasp leaving its nut

The ink the Egyptians used was great for papyrus. Not as good for parchment. Writing on parchment calls for a different kind of ink. This new ink needs acid that will bite into the surface while staying nice and black. Not a whole lot of acid—just enough so the ink interacts with the surface of the parchment.

Where do you find acid? Somehow, somebody observed that when wasps lay their eggs on the tree bark, the eggs irritate the tree which reacts by growing a round gall-nut around the eggs to isolate them. If I were a tree I’d do the same thing myself. After the eggs hatch the baby wasps leave behind gall—a bitter, caustic chemical. Ink-makers collected those gall-nuts to make a slightly acidic ink. To get the gall out of the gall-nuts, they steeped them in water for a week.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.


Calligraphy is a word that means ‘beautiful writing.’

Remember the Egyptians used reed pens to write, but since they were drawing images—pictures of things—the nib was kept narrow or else they used a fine-tipped brush. I’m not sure when it happened, but either Greek or Roman scribes began drawing letters with a broad-nibbed pen (a nib is the tip). They became concerned about the angle of the pen when they wrote. They kept their pens always at the same angle, so that a group of letters would have a pleasing consistency. Or maybe they used a chisel-tipped brush. Several calligraphers I link to below use a brush.*

In Italian a serif is called a ‘grazia,’ a grace:
You can even use a chisel-point marker for calligraphy:

* The idea of writing with thick and thin strokes may well have come from the Muslim world, where the Phoenician abjad was evolving into Arabic script. I’ll look into that.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Linear B

Some Cretan jumping over a bull

Linear B is a writing system that they call a syllabary. The symbols stand for syllables. It also has some symbols for words (logograms) and ideas (ideograms). All told there are over 100 characters in Linear B. If you don’t speak Mycenaean, you won’t make head or tail of it. Linear B symbols stand for pieces of one particular language and that’s it.

Do you see how the Phoenician alphabet had an advantage over other writing systems like Linear B? Linear B, Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics were the written forms of their own language only. As the Phoenician alphabet was adopted around the Mediterranean, it worked well as the written form of any language.

Look at these gorgeous ruins! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhDrRJacZDE

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

A win for the shmos

monopoly (noun)
mo·​nop·​o·​ly | \ mə-ˈnä-p(ə-)lē
1 : exclusive ownership through legal privilege, command of supply, or concerted action
2 : exclusive possession or control

By the way, this is the beauty of the free market. The Egyptian scribes weren’t about to change hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics was job security. Hieroglyphics could be read or written by the scribes only—scribes were an elite class because hieroglyphics is so difficult. The scribes controlled who got to read or write. The scribes had a monopoly. But the Phoenician traders had a big-time need for an efficient writing system. A new technology—the alphabet—was invented, the traders enthusiastically adopted it, and so the scribes’ monopoly was busted up.

Here’s homework (yay!): can you think of a communications technology today that’s owned and closely guarded by a small handful of people? What would happen if someone—maybe you—invented a simple, accessible different technology to replace it?


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Canaanite turquoise miners fool around with hieroglyphics during lunch break

My pals (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregulars) Ilene L and Jeffrey K each sent me a link to this Nova series on PBS about the origins of the alphabet—in it, archaeologist Orly Goldwasser asserts that a group of Canaanite turquoise miners working in Egypt were fooling around with hieroglyphics and almost-by-accident invented the alphabet. I think it’s a compelling theory—that’s exactly how a creative mind works: by fooling around. Okay so far. If that’s how it happened, their invention would still need to be promoted, spread far-and-wide, made popular. How do you do that?

The beautiful top drawing of an ox head was drawn by an expert drawer. Under that is an ox head as the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol Aleph. Under that is a pathetic attempt at drawing ox heads by some ham-fisted Canaanite turquoise miner. At the bottom is our letter A.

The Phoenician traders and all their customers needed an efficient writing system to keep business records. The alphabet turned out to be the writing system they needed. The Phoenician trade routes were a communications network—like social media today but without the kitten photos. Those sea-captains visited every port around the Mediterranean Sea. Once the Phoenicians started using the alphabet, everybody started using the alphabet.

And how did the Canaanite miners get their invention to Phoenician sea-captains? You kids who go to Sunday school and Hebrew school knew this one already. Look in the back of your study bibles at the map—the Phoenician cities Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are in the Land of Canaan. Canaanites = Phoenicians.

Very good article here: https://barzilaiendan.com/2012/06/08/cine-a-inventat-alfabetul/

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Twenty-two little letters

‘A’ is ‘Aleph’ and ‘B’ is ‘Beta’—where the word ‘alphabet’ comes from. Aleph and Ayin are glottal stops (‘), like how some people pronounce the double-T in ‘kitten’ or ‘button.’ There are 2 Hs, Ts and Ss—even a third symbol for the impure S, ‘SH.’

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Twenty-two letters! Compare that with the hundreds of symbols (and their variations) you need to memorize so you can understand cuneiform or hieroglyphics or Demotic script. An alphabet of symbols that represent only sounds can be arranged to spell any word you can think of. Suddenly regular shmos could read and write.

Phonetic: a symbol equals sound. Now you know where ‘phonetic’ comes from—those good ol’ Phoenicians.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

A sea-change

Sure, they would have used Demotic script but hieroglyphics is much funnier.

If you own one of these Phoenician trading ships, you’re carrying cloth or papyrus or books or glass or copper or oil. You need to keep track of all that merchandise, how much it cost you and how much you want to sell it for. You’ll be putting in to different ports, unloading some of your cargo and taking on new merchandise. You need to keep records of what you sold and what you bought and who ordered which merch in advance. Egyptian hieroglyphics are way too complicated—even Demotic is cumbersome with symbols for entire syllables—and having a scribe aboard was an additional expense.

The Phoenicians looked at the Egyptian writing system and threw out all the pictograms and ideograms. They kept only the symbols that represented sounds and wound up with a 22 letter alphabet. That’s it. The alphabet was so simple that a sea-captain could write a list of all the stores in his ship without a scribe’s help.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The hardest cryptogram evurrrr

Champollion doing that weird Napoleonic hand-in-the-vest-for-my-portrait thing

A cryptogram is a puzzle where the letters of words are replaced with ciphers. A cipher is any symbol. To ‘decipher’ a code is to replace the ciphers with the correct letters. I told you the secret to solving cryptograms: you look for a short, common word, like ‘the.’ Young began the process by correctly identifying the word ‘Ptolemy.’

Jean-François Champollion (ZHEHN frahn-SWAH shahm-pōl-YŌN) was the tireless French scholar who broke the hieroglyph code. He started with Young’s discovery and used the Greek words to decipher the hieroglyphic and Demotic versions. He figured out that Ptolemy’s name was a rebus—meaning that those symbols must represent sounds. That was a beginning. He still had years of diligent work ahead of him. Eventually, in 1822 he was able to show that hieroglyphic symbols could stand for things, ideas, syllables or sounds. Demotic symbols stood for syllables or sounds. He’d sorted out how the reader can tell which of those a symbol stands for.

And so, after thirteen centuries of silence, the hieroglyphics could speak again. Nowadays if you put ‘Rosetta Stone’ in your search engine you’ll get ads for a company that teaches foreign languages. The Rosetta Stone was so crucial to solving the hieroglyphics mystery that it’s become a symbol for understanding all languages.


Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.