Ancient Writing Materials: Papyrus

 

Papyrus is the most common writing material we have in our collection, and it was used for all manner of public documents, private letters, literary and paralitery texts. Nevertheless, papyrus was expensive enough in ancient Egypt that it was often recycled and reused. Many papyri are written on both sides, and old papyrus were sometimes recycled as mummy cartonnage. An entire archive of texts was discovered in the cartonnage of mummified crocodiles at the site of Tebtunis!


 

 

P.Mich.Inv 7018
Greek papyrus
reused for the feet of a mummy
full image: front

Papyrus was generally manufactured and sold as rolls (see How Ancient Papyrus Was Made) which would measure 20-40 cm in height (top to bottom), and could be up to 30 meters in length (left to right). The rolls could be used for long texts, such as literary works, or could be cut into sheets for shorter uses, like private letters.

When a roll was used for a long work, the text was written horizontally along the roll and divided into columns. A reader would scroll along, keeping a segment of the roll flat in front of him to read, while keeping the ends on his left and right rolled up for convenience. An example of these types of columns is shown below; note the column gap down the middle of the papyrus. Also, note the margins at the top and bottom of the roll. The pattern of deterioration at the top and bottom of the scroll is due to the way in which the scroll was rolled up.


 

 

P.Mich.Inv 966
Register of Documents
Greek: 46 AD
full image: front 

The papyrus below is an example of a cut sheet, used for an official decree. Notice how neat the handwriting is, and how well preserved the papyrus is. This piece of papyrus clearly shows the pattern of criscrossing horizontal and vertical fibers that we find in all papyri.

 

 

P.Mich.Inv 3106
Royal Decree
237 BC
full image: front

Contrary to what you might think, ancient papyrus was quite sturdy and very flexible. The fact that texts that are thousands of years old are still around today is a testament to its durability! Nevertheless, when papyri are taken out of the desert, the new climate can be detrimental to their preservation. For more information, you can visit our page on conservation.

 

 

 

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Next: How Papyrus Was Made

 

Page maintained by Monica Tsuneishi
Last modified: 03/11/2014