Foundation Models as the New Papyrus

Photos © Aditya Mohan

Background on Papyrus

Papyrus, derived from the plant Cyperus papyrus, was a cornerstone of ancient Egyptian civilization. Its use as a writing material dates back to the First Dynasty, around 2900 BCE, with the earliest preserved texts found from circa 2560-2550 BCE at Wadi al-Jarf​ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)​​ (Encyclopedia Britannica)​. This plant, abundant in the Nile Delta, was not only used for writing but also for making various everyday items such as boats, baskets, mats, and sandals​ (Ancient Egypt Online)​​ (World History Encyclopedia)​.

Papyrus offered several advantages over other materials like clay tablets and animal skins. It was lightweight, flexible, and easier to store, making it an ideal medium for recording information​ (Encyclopedia Britannica)​. The production process involved cutting the pith of the papyrus stalk into thin strips, which were then laid in layers, pressed, and dried to form durable sheets​ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)​. This method, initially kept secret, allowed Egypt to dominate the production and trade of papyrus, exporting it widely throughout the ancient world​ (Ancient Egypt Online)​​ (Encyclopedia Britannica)​.

Papyrus played a significant role in preserving knowledge. It was used for various texts, including religious documents like the Book of the Dead, which were placed in tombs to guide the deceased in the afterlife​ (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)​. Additionally, early Christian texts, including parts of the New Testament, were written on papyrus in codex form, which allowed easier reading and handling compared to scrolls​ (World History Encyclopedia)​.

Similarity Between Foundation Models and Papyrus

In the dimly lit scriptorium of an ancient Egyptian temple, a scribe sits cross-legged on a woven mat. The air is filled with the scent of burning oil from a nearby lamp that casts a warm glow across the room. The walls are adorned with intricate hieroglyphs and colorful depictions of gods and goddesses. Shelves laden with papyrus scrolls line the back wall, a testament to the vast knowledge accumulated by the ancient civilization.Before the scribe lies a partially unrolled papyrus scroll, its surface inscribed with meticulously crafted hieroglyphic script and vivid illustrations. The scribe, dressed in a linen kilt and adorned with a simple headdress, carefully dips his reed brush into a pot of black ink. His steady hand moves gracefully across the papyrus, adding details to a scene that depicts the journey of the soul through the afterlife.


Foundation models in AI are poised to be as transformative as papyrus was in ancient Egypt. They are changing how we store and share knowledge. Initially proprietary, these technologies are becoming more open, fostering innovation and broader adoption. By understanding the historical significance of papyrus, we can better appreciate the potential impact of AI on modern society, emphasizing the importance of open use in the long term. Just as papyrus carried the wisdom of ancient civilizations, foundation models will carry the collective intelligence of our time into the future.

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