Saturday, February 1, 2014

Sir Aurel Stein and paper's 2000-year road

I went to the craft store last week to find paper by the pound. I wanted to write out a poem for my granddaughter (due to be born March 12). Used to be I could find sheets of this stationery in 100s of colors with matching envelopes at this store and another, which has closed. I could buy one sheet or twenty, one envelope or many, and I could mix and match colors at a whim. The system fit my dislike of prepackaging. Plexiglass shelving units are there where the paper used to be, but now they are filled with scrapbooking paper. I can infer from this that people are creating scrapbooks about their lives, but they're not writing letters about them on paper to friends and family.

That's not a surprise, and I'm grateful when we can preserve trees, minimize waste and all of that, but I felt the loss of all that paper, of the colors and the ability to send someone special a letter written with a black ink art pen and a few doodles and sketches inserted here and there like we do emoticons now. I have not done this more than once or twice in at least a decade, whereas in the 1970s and 80s I did it often. But I felt a twinge that this product was not available, that people — including me — are not writing letters, and that already a valuable part of my life is past.

Obviously this is not a new topic. It could be that I found this more meaningful because last week I had also read about the origins of paper. I had been under the false idea that paper began with papyrus in Egypt. Although the word "paper" came from "papyrus," paper did not come from the papyrus plant and originated as a pulp papermaking process in China in around 100AD.

Below is a Sogdian scrap again (see last post), but this time it is a piece of the famous Ancient Letters, discovered in 1907 by Sir Aurel Stein, Hungarian-born British citizen, in one of the watchtowers of the Chinese frontier wall (Great China Wall). The Sogdian script derived from Aramaic. These pieces of the Ancient Letters are the oldest existing scraps of paper. Stein thought they were from the decades after the inception of paper, but researchers don't see confirmation of that and believe they could be from the 4th century.

piece of one of the five Ancient Letters
in Sogdian script
photo at Silk Road Foundation,
The International Dunhuang Project

"The group consists of five almost complete letters and a number of fragments of similar letters. Each letter was folded several times and bore the names of the sender and addressee on the outside. Most were tied with string; one letter was wrapped in silk and enclosed in an envelope of coarse cloth addressed to Samarkand, 2000 miles to the west. From the letters themselves it may be deduced that at least two were written in Tun-huang [Dunhuang] and one in Kutsang. The inference that they represent the contents of a “mailbag” lost or abandoned in transit from east to west accords well with the general tenor of the letters, which seem to consist largely of reports to wealthy Sogdian merchants by their representatives abroad." — Encyclopaedia Iranica

Lime Watch Towers, photo by Sir Aurel Stein, 1914
Photo 392/28(479), © The British Library Board
photo from V&A
Dunhuang, China, wiki map

Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943), archeologist, explorer, geographer
wiki photo
Stein found the Ancient Letters and also purchased many discovered manuscripts, including a stash of 500 cubic feet of bundled manuscripts — 10,000 documents and painted scrolls — happened upon by Buddhist monk Wang Yuanlu at Dunhuang. Stein paid him one hundred and thirty pounds.

Paper by the pound! OK, forgive me for that. In this age of digitization, the value of paper is in debate, but as archeological find, it becomes more precious. One can't help wondering what daily paper documents will be left in 50 or 100 years, and if all the world's known books really will be in digital format, available to the masses, thanks to Google Books and other initiatives.

As for my poem and writing it out for my grandchild, I found a cellophane-wrapped package of 5 x 8" card stock that fits the purpose well. When she's my age, if she still has the poem, how strange will it be, and how valuable in an archeological sense? I never met my biological grandmothers and grandfathers, and I know how much I would treasure anything written by hand from them to me.