Papyrus: the "Paper" of the Ancient World

For a period of more than three thousand years, papyrus was the main writing material in ancient Egypt and other parts of the Mediterranean world. The oldest examples date from the third millennium B.C.E., and the last example from the eleventh century C.E.

Papyrus is made from the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus), which used to grow abundantly along the banks of the river Nile, but is now extinct there. To make a papyrus sheet, Egyptian papyrus makers cut the stem of the plant along the length into strips. They laid these strips crossways in two layers on a flat surface and pressed them together. The plants' own juices made the strips stick together. Because of the crossways layering, the fibers of the papyrus run horizontally on one side of a sheet, and vertically on the other. Twenty sheets pasted together formed a papyrus roll.

Egyptians originally wrote with brush-like pens made of rush, a marsh plant with a soft stem. The Egyptian scribe would chew on the stem to give it a brush-like tip. After the coming of the Greeks, both Egyptians and Greeks made pens of reed (Greek kalamos), which they cut to a point and split in two at the top to form a nib. During the entire period Egyptian and Greek scribes mixed lampblack, gum and water to make ink—hence the black color.

View slide show:
Papyrus Making 101: rediscovering the craft of making ancient paper

image from Book 18 of Homer's Iliad Iliad Homer Book 18 P. Mich. inv. 2 + 2755a + 3160. Greek. - Karanis (Kom Aushim, Fayum, Egypt). –2nd/3rd century C.E.

This papyrus is the end of a roll that contained Book 18 of the Iliad of Homer, written by a professional scribe. Parts of eleven columns survive of what originally must have been a roll of 14 columns with approximately 44 lines per column. The collection holds 21 fragments from this large roll. Most of them were purchased in 1920 and 1925 (inv. 2; 3160), but the smallest fragment (inv. 2755a, part of column VIII) was found in Karanis in 1924 during the University of Michigan excavations.

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