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Writing Paper for the Ancient Mediterranean


Life Stages of the Papyrus Plant

circa 1850: The stages of life of the papyrus plant.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus L.) is a freshwater reed which belongs to the Cyperaceae family of sedges. It has no leaves, but typically grows to a height of between 1.5-4 meters (5-13 feet), and when fully grown is topped with a bushy cluster of fine thread-like strands which end in tiny flowers. Its stem is triangular in cross-section; the stem is five to eight centimeters (2-8 inches) wide at the base and tapers to a point at the top. The interior of the stem, called pith or parenchyma, is a cream-colored fibrous mass with a spongy texture of honey-combed cells and parallel woody or ligneous fibers.

Papyrus grows today in isolated swamps and wetlands throughout the arid parts of the Mediterranean. During the Early Bronze Age of about four thousand years ago, it was deliberately cultivated within the floodplains of the Nile, Euphrates and Tigris rivers, providing a variety of uses to the Egyptian and Mesopoamian civilizations. Papyrus was never truly domesticated: but it was an important economic piece of these cultures, and cultivation of papyrus required management, including bans on burning, rotational harvesting, seasonal harvesting and control of other intrusive plants.

Using Papyrus

Papyrus is probably best known for its use by various Bronze Age societies for the production of paper, but it was also used for other purposes, such as making boats, sails, mattresses, mats, blankets, rope, sandals and baskets. In our modern day, people use it to build houses, as fuel for fire, fodder for animals, sleeping mats and roofing and as medication. In ecological terms, papyrus is studied today for its ability to trap sediments and keep pollutants from entering water bodies in wetlands.

The oldest written papyrus comes from Egypt, about 2400 BC. Beginning about the fourth century BC, papyrus use spread into the Greco-Roman world, and it only declined after about the 7th century AD, when parchment, made from treated animal skin, and rag paper, developed in China and brought to the Mediterranean via the extensive Arabic trading network, became readily available. Rag paper is the precursor of our modern papers; but the word paper comes direct to us from papyrus.

Papyrus rolls and fragments have been found in caves, tombs, middens, and mummy casings: essentially, it is preserved in micro-climates where low temperatures and humidity are combined with a relative lack of insect life. Most surviving papyri are written in Greek, but a large number have been found in Latin, Egyptian, Aramaic, Persian, and Arabic. An enormous collection of about 200,000 papyri covering nearly 1,000 years were recovered from the Oxyrhynchus site in Egypt, where a veritable library of Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman writings were discovered in a dump.

Making Papyrus Paper

In the first century AD, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder described how to make paper, albeit in fairly vague terms. Archaeological investigations through the latter part of the last century have revealed additional details. The process begins with harvesting the thickest part of the papyrus stem into segments of between 20-30 centimeters (7-12 inches). The outer rind is peeled off, and the pith is cut into strips. These strips are laid out side by side; a second layer is stacked on top of the first, at right angles from the first layer. Water (from the Nile, says Pliny) was added, and the whole mass was beaten or pressed to form a single sheet. It is possible that salts and aluminum in Nile water sediments combined with the natural gums in papyrus acted as an adhesive. The sheet was then allowed to dry. The individual sheets of paper were then joined together into rolls using a starch-based paste to attach overlying edges, and the whole surface was prepared for writing by a wash of egg, gum and/or milk. A typical roll took about 20 sheets.

In some cases, the paper maker peeled out the pith with a needle, producing large flat sheets which could be then pressed together. This method had to be reinforced with the strip method to create a regular size and form.

Modern Studies of Papyrus

In 2004, scholars (Franceschi et al.) described using scanning electron microscopy and optical microscropy to identify evidence of the different manufacturing processes used by Egyptians and Greco-Romans. They found that thermal curves could be used to determine the amount of cellulose and lignin present in a papyrus document, variations which result from different processing methods.

The POxy Project is a research project investigating the translation and study of the papyri from Oxyrhynchus. The preservation of the papyri, enhanced by the latest technology, has allowed researchers to identify new texts from a number of ancient writers; the study of the work has also led to new techniques to obtain reasonable images from which to read the texts. There are so many papryi in the collections requiring transcription that during the summer of 2011, the University of Oxford published the Ancient Lives website, where the Oxyrhychus texts are online and you can help transcribe them.

Some scholars have argued that papyrus made up a portion of the diets of our human ancestor Australopithecus boisei. Van der Merwe and colleagues point to the stable isotope analysis of A. boisei tooth enamel, which suggests a substantial dietary input from C4 species, and papyrus certainly fits that bill and would have been available. While chewing the raw cellulose that makes up the bulk of papyrus stem doesn't sound like a terrific treat to modern human beings, apparently we can digest it. Yum!


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Ancient Writing, Raw Materials, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Franceschi E, Luciano G, Carosi F, Cornara L, and Montanari C. 2004. Thermal and microscope analysis as a tool in the characterisation of ancient papyri. Thermochimica Acta 418(1-2):39-45.

Leach B. 2009. Papyrus Manufacture. In: Wendrich W, editor. UCLA Encylopedia of Egyptology. Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles. Open Access.

Marota I, Basile C, Ubaldi M, and Rollo F. 2002. DNA decay rate in papyri and human remains from Egyptian archaeological sites. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 117(4):310-318.

Shepherd WH. 2008. The preservation and conservation of papyri. Unpublished paper.

Terer T, Muasya AM, Dahdouh-Guebas F, Ndiritu GG, and Triest L. 2012. Integrating local ecological knowledge and management practices of an isolated semi-arid papyrus swamp (Loboi, Kenya) into a wider conservation framework. Journal of Environmental Management 93(1):71-84.

van der Merwe NJ, Masao FT, and Bamford MK. 2008. Isotopic evidence for contrasting diets of early hominins Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei of Tanzania. South African Journal of Science 104:153-155.

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