The Origin and Manufacture of Papyrus

In Egypt, dense reed thickets flourished for millennia in the shallow freshwater marshes along the Nile River. These reeds were the famous papyrus plants which played an important role in ancient Egyptian civilization throughout its long history. The papyrus plant, Cyperus papyrus, is a triangular stemmed reed in the sedge family. Each plant often grew to a height of 6 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) and was topped with a bushy cluster of fine green thread-like strands with small flowers at their ends. Cultivated and harvested, the papyrus plants had a multitude of uses. Their roots were a source of food, medicine, and perfume. Their stems were used to make baskets, floor mats, ropes, clothing, footwear, boats, assorted building materials, and the most important writing material in the ancient world.

The use of papyrus in making writing materials dates back to Predynastic times. Unfortunately, the ancient Egyptians left little evidence about the manufacturing process. There are no extant texts or wall paintings and archaeologists have failed to uncover any manufacturing centers. Most of our knowledge about the actual manufacturing process is derived from its description in Pliny the elder's Natural History and modern experimentation.

The harvested reeds were cut into manageable lengths and the tough dark outer rinds of their stems were removed to reveal the yellowish-white inner pith. The next step was to peel or slice apart the layers which made up the pith into thin strips. The strips would then cut into roughly equal lengths. To form a sheet, the strips would be laid side by side on a flat surface till they formed a rectangle. Next, a second layer of strips would be laid upon the first at right angles. Pressure was applied, either by the use of some type of weight or by a special hammer. It was important that the papyrus strips were moist (either freshly cut or soaked in water). This ensured their gummy sap would bond the layers together. The sheet, thus formed, was now allowed to dry in the sun with possibly additional pressings or pounding to remove any remaining moisture and ensure flatness. After drying, the sheets would be rubbed smooth with a piece of ivory or a smooth shell and any rough or uneven edges trimmed.

Owing to the method of manufacture, the fibers on one side of a papyrus sheet ran in a horizontal direction while those on the other side, ran vertically. The side with the horizontally running fibers is called recto and was the preferred side for writing upon. The side with the vertical fibers is called verso.

Finished sheets were not sold individually, but were assembled into rolls of twenty sheets. To make a roll, the individual sheets would be aligned recto to recto with the right edge of one sheet overlapping the left of the next. The only exception to this arrangement was the end sheets of the roll. These were attached in the reverse way. This ensured horizontally running fibers were on the outside ends of the roll and was intended to reduce the possibility of the fibers being pulled apart as the roll was handled. A flour paste glue was used to attach the sheets. In some cases, to eliminate the bulge where the join would be, the overlapping edge sections would consist of only a single layer of papyrus. The finished rolls would then be sold and their purchaser could either cut them into sections or attach additional rolls depending upon his or her needs. The production and distribution of papyrus was controlled and regulated by the state.

Just like there are many different kinds and qualities of paper today, the same was true for papyrus. Each type was used for a different purpose. Very cheaply made coarse papyrus was used by merchants to wrap items. The finest and most expensive varieties were reserved for religious or literary works. Quality depended upon a number of factors. Where the papyrus plants were grown, the age of the plants, the season when they were harvested, and most importantly, the layer of pith used in manufacture were all factors that affected the quality of the finished product. The finest papyrus was made using the innermost pith layers and was said to have come from the Delta region.

A typical roll was usually constructed of papyrus sheets of varying quality. The best sheets would be used for its ends, since they received the most wear and tear, and lesser quality sheets for its inner sections. To add additional strength and help prevent fraying, at the end margins, a strip of papyrus would be glued along the ends of the roll. In some cases, each end of the scroll would be wound around a stick (called an umbicus) which had attached cords to keep the roll from unraveling.

The size of the finished sheets used to construct rolls varied greatly over time and according to their intended use. For rolls intended for use in writing, large sheets were preferred. Commonly, sheets 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) wide were used. During early Pharonic times the sheets were about 5 to 6 inches (12 to 15 centimeters) in height. Later, sheets of 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) in height became the norm.

The various varieties and sizes of papyrus were often named in honor of emperors or officials. This information, particularly during the Roman and Byzantine periods, was written on the first sheet of a roll and was called a protocol. Additionally, the protocol often included the date and place of manufacture of the papyrus. Generally, the protocol would be cut off before using the roll. However, for legal documents, this practice was forbidden by the Laws of Justinian. The practice of adding a protocol to a finished papyrus roll continued into Islamic times.

The use of papyrus as a writing material was not limited solely to Egypt. Papyrus was exported throughout the entire ancient Mediterranean world. The introduction of paper in the ninth century CE signaled the beginning of the end for papyrus as the most important writing material of the ancient world. However, papyrus would continue to be used in Egypt until, at least, the late eleventh century CE.


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