Papyrus (5th Cent. B.C.E.-8th Cent. C.E.)

Image of a papyrus plant

Location of papyrus growth

Egypt is important for papyrus in two respects. First, papyrus plants grew almost exclusively in the region of the Nile delta. Secondly, the dry climate of Egypt made it possible for papyri to endure, in many cases, for over 2 millenia.

An Ancient Description of the Process

Pliny, Natural History, 13.74-82

Paper is made from the papyrus plant by separating it with a needle point into very thin strips as broad as possible. The choice quality comes from the center, and thence in the order of slicing. The (choice) quality in former times called 'hieratic' because it was devoted only to religious books has, out of flattery, taken on the name of Augustus, and the next quality that of Livia, after his wife, so that the 'hieratic' has dropped to third rank.

The next had been named 'amphitheatric' from its place of manufacture. At Rome Fannius' clever workshop took it up and refined it by careful processing, thus making a first-class paper out of a common one and renaming it after him; the paper not so reworked remained in its original grade as 'amphitheatic'.

Next is the 'Saitic', so called after the town where it is most abundant, made from inferior scraps, and from still nearer the rind the 'Taeneotic', named after a nearby place (this is sold, in fact, by weight not by quality). The 'emporitic', being useless for writing, provides envelopes for papers and wrappings for merchants. After this there is (only) the papyrus stalk, and its outermost husk is similar to a rush and useless even for rope except in moisture.

Paper of whatever grade is fabricated on a board moistened with water from the Nile: the muddy liquid serves as the bonding force. First there is spread flat on the board a layer consisting of strips of papyrus running vertically, as long as possible, with their ends squared off. After that a cross layer completes the construction. Then it is pressed in presses, and the sheets thus formed are dried in the sun and joined one to another, (working) in declining order of excellence down to the poorest. There are never more than twenty sheets in a roll.

There is great variation in their breadth, the best thirteen digits, the 'hieratic' two less, the 'Fannian' measures ten, the 'amphitheatic' one less, the 'Saitic' a few less--indeed not wide enough for the use of a mallet--and the narrow 'emporitic' does not exceed six digits. Beyond that, the qualities esteemed in paper are fineness, firmness, whiteness, and smoothness.

The Emperor Claudius changed the order of preference. The excess fineness of the 'Augustan' paper was insufficient to withstand the pressure of the pen; in addition, as it let the ink through there was always the fear of a blot from the back, and in other respects it was unattractive in appearance because excessively translucid. Consequently the vertical (under) layer was made of second-grade material and the horizontal layer of first-grade. He also increased its width to measure a foot.

There was also the 'macrocolum', a cubit wide, but experience revealed the defect that when one strip tears off it damages several columns of writing. For these reasons the 'Claudian' paper is preferred to all others; the 'Augustan' retains its importance for correspondence, and the 'Livian', which never had any first-grade elements but was all second-grade, retains its same place.

Rough spots are rubbed smooth with ivory or shell, but then the writing is apt to become scaly: the polished paper is shinier and less absorptive. Writing is also impeded if (in manufacture) the liquid was negligently applied in the first place; this fault is detected with the mallet, or even by odour if the application was too careless. Spots, too, are easily detected by the eye, but a strip inserted between two others, though bibulous from the sponginess of (such) papyrus, can scarcely be detected except when the writing runs--there is so much trickery in the business! The result is the additional labour of reprocessing.

Common paste made from finest flour is dissolved in boiling water with the merest sprinkle of vinegar, for carpenter's glue and gum are too brittle. A more painstaking process percolates boiling water through the crumb of leavened bread; by this method the substance of the intervening paste is so minimal that even the suppleness of linen is surpassed. Whatever paste is used ought to be no more or less than a day old. Afterwards it is flattened with the mallet and lightly washed with paste, and the resulting wrinkles are again removed and smoothed out with the mallet.

For more information on Pliny, see Pliny the Elder, Natural Historian and Scientist

Preparation for Writing

After the papyrus had been processed and made into sheets (and usually sheets into rolls), it could then be used as a writing material. Sometimes a scribe wrote on just one sheet and then rolled it up or folded it. Longer documents were written, at first, on a roll of papyrus in narrow columns. Since this could be cumbersome with a long document, papyrus came to be used in the form of the codex (ancestor to our modern book).

Animation of Papyrus Preparation

History of Papyrus and Its Discovery

The use of papyrus as a writing material goes back to extreme antiquity. The oldest written papyrus known to be in existence is, according to Kenyon (The Paleography of Greek Papyri, Oxford, 1899), an account-sheet belonging to the reign of the Egyptian king Assa, which is conjecturally dated circa 2600 B.C.

The size of the single sheet of papyrus was not constant in ancient times, and there ought never to have been any doubt of this fact. Kenyon has collected some measurements. For most non-literary documents (letters, accounts, receipts, etc.) a single sheet was sufficient; for longer texts, especially literary ones, the necessary sheets were stuck together and made into a roll. Rolls have been found measuring as much as 20 and even 45 yards.

The regular format for ancient works of literature was the papyrus roll. It was usual to write on that side of the sheet on which the fibres ran horizontally (recto); the other side (verso) was used only exceptionally. When a sheet of papyrus bears writing on both sides, in different hands, it may generally be assumed that the writing on the recto is the earlier of the two. Only in exceptional cases was there writing on both sides of the sheets of a papyrus roll.

In the later centuries of antiquity we find also the papyrus book or codex, which finally triumphs over the roll. It is not true that the transition from roll to book was the result of the introduction of parchment. To give only a few instances, the British Museum possesses a fragment of a papyrus codex of the Iliad, probably of the 3rd century A.D. Among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri there is a leaf from a codex of the gospels, containing Matthew 1:1-9,12,14-20, of the 3rd century, besides other fragments of Biblical codices. The University Library at Heidelberg possesses twenty-seven leaves from an old codex of the Septuagint. And the sayings of Jesus found at Oxyrhynchus are also on a leaf from a codex.

The first recorded purchase of papyri by European visitors to Egypt was in 1778. In that year a nameless dealer in antiquities bought from some peasants a papyrus roll of documents from the year 191 - 192 A.D., and looked on while they set fire to fifty or so others simply to enjoy the aromatic smoke that was produced. Since that date an enormous quantity of inscribed papyri in all possible languages, of ages varying from a thousand to nearly five thousand years, have been recovered from the magic soil of the ancient seats of civilisation in the Nile Valley. From about 1820 to 1840 the museums of Europe acquired quite a respectable number of papyri from Memphis and Letopolis in Middle Egypt, and from This, Panopolis, Thebes, Hermonthis, Elephantine, and Syene in Upper Egypt. Not many scholars took any notice of them at first, and only a very few read and profited by them.

The next decisive event, apart from isolated finds, was the discovery of papyri in the province of El-Fayûm (Middle Egypt) in 1877. To the north of the capital, Medinet el-Fayûm, lay a number of mounds of rubbish and debris, marking the site of the ancient "City of Crocodiles," afterwards called "The City of the Arsinoïtes," and these now yielded up hundreds and thousands of precious sheets and scraps. Since then there has been a rapid succession of big finds, which have not ceased even yet: we are still in a period of important discoveries. In the external history of the discoveries the most noteworthy feature is that so many of the papyri have been dug up with the spade from Egyptian rubbish-heaps. Antiquaries had set the example by excavating in search of the foundations of ancient temples or fragments of prehistoric pottery, and now the excavators seek papyri. The fact that so many of the papryi are found among the dust-heaps of ancient cities is a valuable indication of their general significance. The multitude of papyri from the Fayûm, from Oxyrhynchus-Behnesa, etc., do not, as was at first supposed, represent the remains of certain great archives. They have survived as part of the contents of ancient refuse-heaps and rubbish-shoots. There the men of old cast out their bundles of discarded documents, from offices of public and private, their worn-out books and parts of books; and there these things reposed, tranquilly abiding their undreamt-of fate.

(Adapted from Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World, Trans. by Lionel R. M. Strachan, 1927 [First Edition 1908], pp. 26-32.)

For more on the study of papyrus, follow this link to the Papyrology home page.

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