Papyrus Making 101: rediscovering the craft of making ancient paper  

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Papyrus reeds growing at the University of Michigan Botanical Gardens

The papyrus plant grows wild in Egypt in the marshes along the Nile river. In the ancient world, paper was made exclusively from high-quality papyrus grown on plantations. As a result, modern papyrus, which is made from wild plants, is of a lower quality than ancient papyrus.

A stalk of papyrus is clipped near the base.

In ancient times, the entire plant was pulled from the root at harvest time. It is unkown at what time of year the ancient Egyptians harvested papyrus, or whether mature papyrus was preferred over young papyrus.

A cut stalk of papyrus

The stalk of papyrus is cut free from the base. The triangular shape of the papyrus reed is clearly visible.

Peeling the outer layer of the papyrus

In ancient times, the tough outer layer would have been kept for other uses. Strips of this layer could be woven together to form all manner of useful items, such as baskets or sandals. However, only the inner part of the reed is used to make the writing material.

Overview of the papyrus stalks, peeled and unpeeled

In the photo you can see (left to right) an unpeeled papyrus stalk, complete with flower; two peeled papyrus stalks; and several strips of the papyrus' green outer layer.

Cutting the papyrus reed into strips Once the outer layer is removed, the inner part of the reed is cut into strips. No one is completely sure what method was used in ancient times. Rather than cutting the reed, as shown above, some have suggested that the triangular stalk was peeled into strips.
Several strips of papyrus The strips should all be around the same length and thickness, in order to create a consistent shape for the sheet.
Soaking the papyrus strips in water Soaking the papyrus strips is important for softening the papyrus and activating the plant's natural juices, which act as a glue to hold the strips together. In ancient times, it was thought that the mystical Nile waters were essential to the papyrus-making process, but any water will do.
Rolling out the papyrus strips After they have soaked for a few days in water, a wooden rolling pin is used to drive out the water and flatten the papyrus strips.
The papyrus strips are laid out The strips of flattened, soaked papyrus are laid out in two layers perpindicular to each other. This technique is absoluetly essential to papyrus making, and is what gives papyrus its characterstic look and feel. Here, each strip overlaps the next by 1/16 inch.
The sheet is placed into a press When the strips have all been laid out, they are covered with a sheet of linen and felt, and then sandwiched between two boards in a press. The sheet will remain in the press for a few days until it is dry.
The sheet of papyrus is removed from the press The sheet is kept in the press for a few days, and the felt is changed daily to aid the drying process. When the sheet is dry, it is removed from the press.
The finished sheet of papyrus and a burnishing stone Initially, the surface of the papyrus is somewhat rough. It may be burnished slightly with a stone, and then it is ready to receive writing.


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