Papyrus: A Brief History
In the following post, I will discuss papyrus and its function in the history of writing and documentation. I will first explain the general history of the material, followed by a brief explanation of how we now believe rolls of papyrus were constructed. Lastly, I will describe my experiences with papyrus in order to provide my insight into its quality as a writing surface. This piece serves to highlight the role of papyrus in the development of writing, documentation, and literature as we now know it.
History of Papyrus
The development of writing has been a been a long process based on experimentation and a cycle of new methods gradually replacing the old. Over the course of thousands of years, different materials and literary forms dominated in distinct regions and eras. The first documented material, clay, was used heavily the river plains of of Mesopotamia, where many believe writing was born. (4) These clay fragments were also used by many in Egypt and across Europe. Around 3000 BC, the Egyptians would revolutionize the literary world by producing a smooth, flexible writing material that could accept and retain ink without a blur or smudge. (4) This material, papyrus, would remain in use for longer than any other material in the history of written documents.
The papyrus plant was very important to the ancient Egyptians. As Janice Kamrin of the Department of Egyption Art at the Metropolitan Museum of art once wrote,
"In ancient Egyptian cosmology, the world was created when the first god stood on a mound that emerged from limitless and undifferentiated darkness and water, a mythical echo of the moment each year when the land begins to reappear from beneath the annual floodwaters. Papyrus marshes were thus seen as fecund, fertile regions that contained the germs of creation. (2)"
The papyrus plant was a symbol of rebirth. From these “germs of creation,” the Egyptians extracted the material on which they could create and record for millennia. The papyrus plant needed fresh water or water-saturated earth to grow. Despite Egypt’s generally arid climate, these conditions were found in the marshes of the Nile Delta and in the “low-lying areas fringing the Nile Valley.” (2) The papyrus stalks were thin yet strong, topped by “feathery umbels ending in small brown fruit-bearing flowers.” (2)
How Papyrus was Made
To this day, we are not entirely positive how the ancient Egyptians produced their papyrus sheets. There are very few remaining documentations from Egypt about the process. The most complete description of the preparation that remains is from Pliny’s Natural History. (6) Although his description is detailed, there are a few aspects that do not align with what we have observed in remnants of ancient documents. In addition, Pliny never traveled to Egypt, so he would have no way to definitively understand the process.
Despite this lack of documentation, we are fairly certain that we know the general steps taken to create the material. To begin,the stalk was harvested and cut into sections, with the lower, middle and upper parts being separated. Since the lower part of the stalk contained more pulp than the higher sections, the fibers extracted would produce a thinner papyrus sheet. (1) In pharaonic times, these thin sheets were preferred. According to Pliny, the Greeks and Romans favored the papyrus sheets produced from the middle section of the stalk. Then, the inside of the triangular stalk of the plant would be cut or peeled into long strips. These strips would be laid down in two layers, one vertical and one horizontal in a grid pattern. (5) They would be wet and pressed so that the layers would bind. Sometimes, adhesive was added to this process. After being hammered flat, the sheets would be dried in the sun and polished with a piece of ivory or a shell. (4) According to Pliny and other sources, papyrus sheets varied by grade and price depending on the relative location of the fibers and the condition of the completed sheets. (6)
How it was Used
The papyrus produced in Egypt was used for many purposes, but none more important than its function as a writing material. Occasionally, individual sheets were sold for the purpose of record keeping and lists, but the majority of these sheets were fashioned and sold as scrolls. Ten to twenty sheets would be glued together to form a long sheet and rolled into a scroll, often around a wooden stick. This form of papyrus dominated not only Egypt, but was shipped in mass quantities to Europe. In Rome and Greece, the papyrus scroll became a culturally engrained standard.
The papyrus scroll remained the standard in Europe and specifically Rome for many years. It did not have a worthy rival until the rise of parchment in the second century AD. Parchment, also known as vellum, was allegedly discovered by Eumenes II, who reigned over Pergamum on the west coast of Turkey from 197 to 159 BCE. (4) Although it was durable and smooth, the parchment was unreasonably expensive and took quite a while to catch on. As the Christian church grew and became rich enough to afford such an expensive material, parchment in codex form became synonymous with the Church. When the Church and Christianity prevailed over the Roman Empire, the parchment codex became the standard for medieval European scribes and papyrus began its decline.
After learning about the material at length in our Ancient Book class, we got our hands dirty with papyrus in our first transcription project. We were given ten individual sheets, approximately the size of a standard sheet of printer paper. We then pasted the sheets together, with the horizontal fibers facing up and the vertical fibers facing the table. We overlapped the sheets, placing the left sheet over the right and gluing them together. After flattening the joint of the pages with a bone saw, we let the scroll dry for a day. Then, using a reed pen and a fountain pen, we copied approximately 150 lines of text onto the scroll.
I found the process of writing on the papyrus to be at times quite difficult. The nib of the fountain pen often got caught on the fibers and the ink would run and smudge. Also, the pen would sometimes break through the papyrus, slightly ripping the sheet and leaving a blemish. Throughout project, I did not find a great way to correct errors and ink blotches. I tried scraping the papyrus like we saw in many examples, but our sheets were too brittle and would often break under whatever tool I used for the corrections. In the end, I found the most aesthetically-appealing method to be a simple line crossing out the incorrect section of text.
Despite these difficulties, I was surprised and impressed by the quality of the papyrus as a writing surface. Although the sheets would occasionally rip, the papyrus overall was very durable. I attribute the holes and scratches to the sharpness of the metal nib of the pen, rather than the fragile nature of the material. Based on this experience, it is easy to see why papyrus became popular and remained so for thousands of years. The scroll we produced was portable, strong, and aesthetically appealing. When compared to the other alternatives at the time (leather and clay), the relative quality of the papyrus is obviously far superior.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of papyrus in the history and development of writing. In a way, the invention of papyrus marked the beginning of the globalization of documentation and the literary form. Before papyrus, writing was a skill reserved for a very small minority and often came in the form of at most a few sentences on a fragment of clay or piece of leather. With the papyrus scroll, the Western world gained a standard surface on which it could create and document. The scroll fostered the creation and survival of some of the world’s most influential documents, ranging from some of the first fixed law codes to the important literary works of Rome’s brightest minds.
1) Bagnall, Roger S. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
I used the first chapter, titled "Writing Materials In the Ancient World." This chapter provides information about the history and construction methods of papyrus, as well as Pliny's excerpt about the production process.
2) "Papyrus in Ancient Egypt | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan
Museum of Art." The Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed May 22, 2016.
This article is written by a member of the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of art. It provides historical and cultural context for papyrus, especially as it relates to its use in Egypt
3) "Paper History." Case Paper. Accessed May 22, 2016.
This article provides a brief description of how papyrus is made. I did not reference it in the blog post, but it provided additional information to my research. Since we do not know exactly how papyrus is made, I read multiple sources in order to get wide range of information
4) "HISTORY OF WRITING MATERIALS." HISTORY OF WRITING MATERIALS. Accessed
May 22, 2016.
I used this article to gather information primarily about the history of parchment.
5) "How Ancient Papyrus Was Made." Homepage. Accessed May 22, 2016.
I used this article to get technical information for how Papyrus is made.
6) "Ancient Writing Materials." Ancient Writing Materials. Accessed May 22, 2016.
I used this article to get information about the preferred grades of papyrus sheets.