An Introduction to Papyrus
Ancient and Modern
Two thousand years ago, papyrus was the most popular
writing material in the world. Today, modern papyrus is used as a specialty
writing material by artists and calligraphers.
Papyrus, from which we get the modern word paper, is a writing material
made from the papyrus plant, a reed which grows in the marshy areas around
the Nile river. Papyrus was used as a writing material as early as 3,000
BC in ancient Egypt, and continued to be used to some extent until around
Although it was produced exclusively in Egypt, where the papyrus plant
grew, papyrus (the writing material) was exported throughout the classical
world, and it was the most popular writing material for the ancient Greeks
Papyrus sheets are made by arranging two layers of papyrus, one atop
the other, at right angles. The layers are then pressed together, and
the gum released by the breakdown of the plant's cellular structure acts
as a glue which bonds the sheet together.
In ancient times, several sheets of papyrus were joined end to end to
form a roll. These rolls could be 100 feet or more in length, and were
the common form of papyrus in the ancient world. The ancient library of
Alexandria was home to thousands of papyrus rolls containing the literary
works of ancient authors.
Papyrus was also the medium of the New Testament in the early centuries
after the death of Jesus. Christian texts were often in the form of a
codex, rather than a roll. A codex contains several leaves bound together
much like a modern book.
Papyrus eventually gave way to parchment, and later, paper. The large
plantations in Egypt which used to cultivate high-grade papyrus for manufacture
disappeared, and wild papyrus also began to disappear as the climate of
Egypt slowly changed.
Fortunately for modern scholars, the dry climate of Egypt has preserved
thousands of fragments of ancient papyrus. These fragments form the basis
of the field of papyrology, the study of ancient papyrus. Papyrus texts
offer scholars new literary sources as well as documents, such as letters
and government records, which give much insight into life in ancient Egypt.
However, the art of papyrus making remained dead for a thousand years.
During the 20th century, when more and more papyrus texts came to light,
scholars began to investigate how ancient papyrus manufacturing occurred.
Several variations on the basic scheme, which is outlined in Pliny's Natural
History, were proposed and tested, but none has produced a writing
material which is of the quality of ancient papyrus.
Two thousand years ago, papyrus making was a booming industry, and papyrus
was made by highly skilled craftsmen working with a specially cultivated
strain of papyrus that was bred to produce a high quality writing material.
Today, papyrus is made from wild strains of papyrus, and the manufacturing
process is carried out on a small scale by the few specialists who choose
to make papyrus.
Recently, Leyla Lau-Lamb, a conservator at the University of Michigan
Papyrus Collection, and Karen Koykka O'Neal, a professional papermaker
in Ann Arbor, documented the modern papyrus-making process in action.
This exhibit is a result of their labors.
To learn how to make papyrus, return to the main
page, and view the slide show.