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What is Papyrus? Part I

When ancient Egyptians documented their history, they wrote on papyrus , a thick, paper-like material that comes from the pith of the papyrus plant. In the past, the material was abundant in the Nile Delta of Egypt. In this article, you will learn information about other uses for the material, as well as ancient documents written on papyrus that still exists.

The Plant

Papyrus dates back as far as the 1st Dynasty of ancient Egypt, but was also used throughout the Mediterranean region. The ancient Egyptians not only used papyrus for writing material, but also made boats, mats, rope, footwear, baskets, and even mattresses out of it. The plant typically reached a height of 5 to 9 feet tall.  

How Papyrus Was Made

In order to make papyrus, the stem of the plant played an important role. First, the outer rind is stripped off, and the inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips. The inner pith is sticky and fibrous. The strips typically measured around 40 centimeters long. Strips were then laid side by side on a hard surface so that their edges overlapped slightly. Another layer of strips were laid on top to form a right angle. Some believe that the strips of papyrus were soaked in water long enough to trigger decomposition, which was thought to increase the adhesiveness of the strips.

Other theories surrounding the creation of papyrus are that two layers were glued together or layers were hammered together to create one sheet, which was dried under pressure. Once the sheet of papyrus, it was polished with a rounded object (like a stone, seashell, or hard wood). We know of such methods of making papyrus from the writings of historic figures, such as Pliny the Elder, who offered descriptions in his Naturalis Historia.

Since Egypt had a dry climate, it provided a stable environment for papyrus. If weather conditions were wetter, then the material would be susceptible to deterioration. Finding examples of papyrus in Europe is quite rare. Outside of a writing surface, papyrus was also fashioned into hats, baskets, traps for fishing, floor mats, roofing, rope, ceiling, and fences.

Background History

Papyrus scrolls were first manufactured in Egypt dating back to the third millennium BCE. It wasn’t until the first century BCE that parchment started to compete for the honors of being the most favored writing surface. The ancient Egyptians would fold sheets of parchment to create a ream of paper, and then fashion into a form that made books (or codices). It wasn’t long until other cultures adopted the book format, such as early Christian writers. The Greeks and Romans would cut sheets from rolls of papyrus to create books.

The codices were a step up from the papyrus scroll since papyrus was not pliable enough to fold without it forming cracks. In order to write down a great deal of information, a very long roll (or scroll) was required. Papyrus was relatively cheap and easy to produce. However, it needed to be handled with care. To make matters worse, moisture and excessive dryness also threatened the longevity of papyrus. The papyrus had to be of good quality or the writing surface would product irregularities and the writer would face limitations.