An Ancient Egyptian Map:
THE EARLIEST KNOWN EXAMPLE OF FOLDING
The ancient Egyptian map which was discovered in the Nubian Desert has been dated to approximately 1150 BC and has become quite well-known to paperfolders. I have mentioned it several times, although I have never devoted an article to it. Recently, however, I have found new information about the age of the map and also about the museum where it is kept, so it gives me an opportunity to set out in greater detail what is known about the map.
The Egyptian map is interesting for paperfolders because, ancient though it is, it is folded in the same manner as a modern road map. Although it may not be mainstream origami, the Egyptian map is the earliest known example of folding that has so far come down to us, whether in the east or in the west. It is admittedly not folded from paper as we commonly know it today, and for this reason some may not consider it to be true paperfolding; but it is made from papyrus which is the material the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used in the same way as we use paper today.
The Papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus is a kind of sedge and belongs to a group of plants that are known as umbrella plants. Its natural habitat is swamps, but it also grows along the banks of rivers and It can grow to a height of twenty feet (three metres). Originating in the region of the upper Nile, it was introduced into Lower Egypt in ancient times, where it is thought to have formed the beds of bulrushes along the banks of the Nile among which Moses was hidden in his cradle. Since then it has been introduced into southern Europe and is today grown as an ornamental plant in suitable gardens where there is plenty of water or swampy ground. It is, however too tender to be grown in northern Europe and in most of North America. The stems can be up to two inches thick and contain a thick, white, pithy centre. The Ancient Egyptians had many uses for papyrus: they built their boats with bundles of the stems and used the smaller stems for making sleeping mats, shoes and baskets. The roots were used as fuel. Nevertheless, the most important use was for making the writing material we know as "papyrus", the word that ultimately gave us the word “paper”.
Whereas true paper is made from a mulch of the stems of plants such as the mulberry or from salvaged textiles like cotton or from wood pulp, papyrus is made from the piths of the stems of the papyrus plant. The brownish-cream pith is soft and feels spongy. It is sliced into narrow strips which are soaked in repeated changes of water for several days to remove all impurities. The strips are then pressed flat and one layer of the strips is laid out on a cloth horizontally with the strips overlapping each other slightly. Then another vertical layer is placed on top of that to form a mat of two thicknesses. Another cloth is placed over it. The papyrus sheet is then squeezed with a roller to remove water and make it as thin and flat as possible, before putting it under steady pressure and leaving it to dry out thoroughly. In some cases more than two layers of strips of pith may be used. Papyrus makes a slightly rough but usable writing surface for the writing implements of the day. Papyrus is still made in modern Egypt and it is often painted with reproductions of ancient Egyptian documents for sale to tourists.
Papyrus has usually been considered too stiff and brittle to be used for folding. However, this is a mistaken view which arises from the fact that all of the papyrus that has come down to us from ancient times is dried to brittleness after many centuries in the desert. If folded it consequently cracks and splits easily, so that in its present condition ancient papyrus certainly cannot be folded. However, freshly made papyrus is much more pliable and, while not foldable with the ease of ordinary paper, yet it is capable of being folded and the ancient Egyptians actually did fold their papyrus map
The map is of a gold mining district in Nubia. This is the region of desert between the Nile and the Dead Sea which is exceptionally rich in minerals. In ancient times prodigious quantities of gold were extracted from there. The magnificence of Tutankhamun’s tomb with its gold ornaments astonished the world. Yet we must remember that we only know of the richness of the boy-king Tutankhamun’s tomb because it was the sole royal tomb that was not ransacked of its contents by tomb robbers in antiquity, and then only by the merest chance. Tutankhamun was a very minor king who had reigned for a short time. When we consider what must have been the contents of the tomb of one of the greater Egyptian kings such as Ramesses II we can only begin to imagine the vast quantities of gold that were buried with him and we wonder how many hundreds of tons of gold the Egyptians managed to extract from the Nubian mines.
The Egyptian Map first came to the notice of paperfolders as a result of a paper presented by the two Japanese Professor Koryo Miura and Masamori Sakamaki at the meeting of the International Cartographical Association which was held in Tokyo in August, 1980. The paper was about the new method of folding a map discovered by Koryo Miura in which the creases were slightly on the slant, instead of at right angles as in the usual way of folding a map. This enabled the map to be opened and closed much more easily than a traditionally folded map, requiring only a single pull on the lower right-hand corner to open and close it. Prof. Miura’s paper began by briefly mentioning the ancient Egyptian map and included a line drawing of it. As Prof. Miura observed, the Egyptian map shows worn lines which have been caused by the map having been folded like a modern map. Prof. Miura suggested that it was the earliest surviving folded map and said that the map was kept in a collection in Milan, in Italy.
In the bibliography at the end of the paper, Prof. Miura includes a book named “The History of Maps” by T. Oda, which was distributed by the prominent Japanese publishers, Kodensha. It is possible that this book was the source of Prof. Miura’s information about the Egyptian map.
Knowledge of Prof. Miura’s paper spread around the world surprisingly quickly. Iain Bain wrote an article about it for the British magazine “The New Scientist” for 23rd October, 1980. A copy of this came to the notice of the British paperfolder, David Brill and he published a short description of Prof. Miura’s new design of map in the magazine, British Origami no. 88 for June 1981. However, neither Iain Bain nor David Brill mentioned the Egyptian map. A full copy of Iain Bain’s article was later published on the British Origami Society web site, where it can still be read.
Professor Miura later attended the First International Meeting of Origami Science and Technology which was organized by Humiaki Huzita, the Japanese nuclear physicist who was then working at the University of Padua in Italy. The Meeting was held at the Casa di Ludovico Ariosto in Ferrara in Italy in December, 1989. An abstract of Prof. Miura’s paper was printed in the Proceedings of the Meeting which were subsequently published privately by Humiaki Huzita. Prof.Miura gave a different presentation of his new map fold, with a new description and a short section about its potential application to space technology for the unfolding of large solar panels. Once more Prof. Miura began with a reference to the Egyptian map, with an illustration of it and he again noted that it was in a collection at a museum at Milan.
Prof. Miura went on to become the senior organiser of the Second International Meeting of Origami Science held at Otsu in Japan in 1994 although at that Meeting the paper he presented did not relate to maps.
The map is only a remnant of what was originally a rectangular sheet of papyrus. It is stated to be about 40 centimetres (16 inches) in height and, from its shape as seen in illustrations, this would make it 45 cm (18 inches) wide. There is considerable loss from all four edges and none of the corners is intact. A fragment at the upper right hand side has become detached from the main body. Nevertheless the central picture of the area depicted by the map remains intact with all its features clearly depicted. Apparently there are small fragments of another portion of the map but it is not clear how the fragments are related.
The map appears to be intended as a geological map, and parts are said to be tinted to show different kinds of rock, although the colours are not very evident in the reproductions that I have seen. The situation of gold and silver deposits is also shown. This map precedes the earliest modern geological maps by some 3000 years.
The map depicts two valleys lying between three horizontal rows of conical mountains, at the top, in the centre and at the bottom. Two roads lie in the valleys between the mountains and cross the map from side to side; the lower road, from its rippled markings, probably follows the bed of a dried-up river or “wadi”. The upper road is the site of a settlement. The two roads are connected by another winding road through the central range of mountains. Captions written on the map in Egyptian hieratic script explain what some of the features are and also give the destination of roads leaving the map at the sides. Two roads leaving to the left of the map are marked "to the sea". This could only be the Red Sea and it indicates that the top of the map looks towards the south. A large rectangular area is marked as the Shrine of Amun of the Pure Mountain. Four small rectangular shapes by the roadside are captioned "the houses of the gold-working settlement”. One area is captioned "mountains where gold is washed", while other mountains are captioned “mountains of gold”, and “mountains of silver and gold”. Two features have been identified as a circular well and a rectangular cistern of water
The vertical creases of the map fold are easy to see. Six vertical creases divide the map into seven vertical sections. The horizontal creases, if any, are less easy to see. I have examined seven reproductions or drawings of the map without coming to any conclusion. It is possible that there is one horizontal crease across the middle, but this is not at all certain and it may be that the map does not have any horizontal creases.
While this may be the earliest-known map on papyrus, it is not the earliest known map of any kind. Babylonian maps scratched on clay tablets, and showing plans of buildings, estates and settlements have been dated to about 2000 BC. Considerably later, a Chinese map, drawn on silk fabric has been found in the tomb of an official who was buried in 168 BC. Before the Chinese invented paper they used silk cloth as a writing material. Silk can be folded, but unlike papyrus, it does not take a permanent crease.
Recently I decided to try to find more information about the Nubian map and the museum at which it was kept. I had always followed Prof. Miura in believing that the map was kept in a museum at Milan, but he did not name the museum. Searching the Web, however, I was unable to find that the map was at any museum in Milan. On the contrary, I found another illustration of the Egyptian map which stated that it was part of the Turin Papyrus. I found a book in my own library which had a tinted reproduction of the map and credit for the illustration was given to the Museo Egizio (the Egyptian Museum) in Turin. Several other references on the Web have confirmed this finding, so I have been compelled to conclude that Prof. Miura was misinformed when he wrote that the Nubian map was kept in a museum at Milan
The Museo Egizio is one of the largest and most important museums of Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt. It houses a large and famous collection of papyri and is older than the Egyptian National Museum in Cairo. The collections were started by the Savoy family in 1628. At the time the members of the House of Savoy were already rulers of Piedmont and Dukes of Savoy. They were later to become Kings of Sardinia and on the unification of Italy in 1860, they became Kings of Italy. In about 1628, they moved from their former seat at Chambery to establish a new capital in Turin. The Savoy family were particularly interested in Egyptian antiquities and their collection grew over the centuries. They opened up their collection to the public in the late 18th Century. Then in 1824, the then Duke of Savoy, Carlo Felice (who by then was also the King of Sardinia) established the Museo Egizio at it present site in the Palzzo dell’Accademia della Scienze. Carlo Felice greatly enhanced the collections by buying part of the collection of Bernardino Drovetti and laid the foundations for what was to become one of the finest of museums.
Until the opening of the 19th Century there was little interest in Egypt in any European country. Then, following the invasion and brief occupation of Egypt by Napoleon, the exploration of ancient sites and the discovery of such important artefacts as the Rosetta Stone ignited an enthusiasm for Egyptian archaeology throughout Europe.
Bernardo Drovetti, was born in a hill town outside Turin. He became a lawyer and served with distinction as an officer in the Piedmontese army during Napoleon’s campaign in Italy. In 1803, he went to Egypt, where he served as Napoleon’s assistant consul general. He later became the French consul general until he departed from Egypt in 1826. Drovetti served primarily as a successful diplomat, but in his spare time he became a noted Egyptologist.. He and the British consul general, Henry Salt divided up Egypt between them and established a virtual monopoly of archaeological exploration. They undoubtedly took part in the collection of antiquities to satisfy the increasing demand for Egyptian antiquities. However, Drovetti was, himself, a keen collector of antiquities and built up an unrivalled personal collection. It was very varied, including large statues and many smaller artefacts, together with a vast and important collection of papyri.
A few years before he left Egypt, in 1826, Drovetti decided to dispose. of his collections and divided them into three parts. He sold one part to Charles X, the King of France and this formed the basis of the Egyptian collection at the Louvre. A second part was purchased by an Egyptologist, Richard Lepsius and this is now kept in the Berlin Museum. The remaining part was bought in 1923 by Carlo Felice, the King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy, who personally shared in the enthusiasm for Egyptology that was sweeping Europe. His acquisition was the inspiration for the foundation of the Museo Egizio.
The Drovetti collection includes no less than 98 statues as well as lesser items and is the most important collection of papyri anywhere in the world. It includes the Royal Papyrus which lists all of the Egyptian kings from 3,000 to 1600 BC and which has been vital in constructing the chronology not only of Egypt, but also of the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. And one item in the collection was the map of the Nubian gold-mining district. Exactly when and where it was discovered is not stated, but it appears to have come to light in the 1820s.
Prof Miura’s brief notes about the Egyptian map do not give a date for it and I have previously assumed that the map dated from either Hellenistic or Roman times, (approximately between 300 BC and 300 AD). However the new sources I have discovered indicate that the map is much older. They variously date the map to between 1150 BC and 1300 BC, with one source being quite specific in stating that it was drawn in 1160 BC. Since the manufacture of papyrus dates back to at least 3000 BC, this is entirely possible.
I have also found several other references to which I have not had access including:
(1) An article in “Earth Science” for 1988.
(2) .An article in the National Geographic Magazine for November, 1989 and
(3) J. A. Harrell and V. Brown: The World's Oldest Surviving Geological Map, an article in The Journal of Geology, Vol. 100, pp 3 -18, 1992.
The Nubian map is clearly of greatest importance in the history of maps and the history of mining in Egypt, but is also very interesting for paperfolders, both as the earliest example of creased folding so far discovered and also for demonstrating the antiquity of map folding. It also opens for us a window on the manufacture and uses of papyrus, and its suitability as a material for folding as compared with paper.
As for Prof. Miura’s map fold, it has stimulated scientific discussion about the design of space solar arrays, although I have been unable to discover that his own design of map fold has yet been used for this purpose in space. However, his theories of map folding and the mathematical basis for them have also stimulated wide-ranging discussions about many aspects of mathematics, often in wider fields far removed from map folding.
The study of the Egyptian map comes to us as a unique blend of art, history, science, mathematics and not least, paperfolding.
2nd June, 2005.Back to the index