From Egypt to Ann Arbor: The Building of the Papyrus Collection

At this point it may be worthwhile to explain just what is meant by the term papyrus, which is the source of our word paper. It has three common meanings. First, it is applied to the reed, Cyperus papyrus, native to the swamps of Egypt and the Sudan; secondly, to the paper made from the pith of this reed; and thirdly, to any bit of writing found on a piece of papyrus paper. Thus, a papyrus may be a single sheet or a fragment of one, a roll of sheets glued together, a book of leaves of papyrus paper, or the written content of any one of the above.

Paper was made from the papyrus plant as follows. Narrow strips were first cut from the pith of a reed of appropriate size. Three methods for cutting the papyrus pith have been postulated: the Ragab method, by which the pith is cut from one side only, the Corrado Bastile method, where cuts from all three sides are made, and finally the Hendricks method of unpeeling. Thus:

Then, while still fresh, a number of these strips of like length and width were laid parallel to each other, with slight overlaps, on a wet table to form a mat of the desired size. A second similar mat was laid above the first with the upper strips at right angles to the lower. The two layers were then bonded to each other and formed a single sheet.

After being dried and smoothed, the sheet was ready for use, and one could write on either or both sides of it. Prepared in this way and given proper protection from dampness and other destructive forces, papyri have lasted in excellent condition for hundreds of years, and in not a few cases for well over three thousand years. In Greek and Roman times the ink used for writing on papyrus was made from lamp-black, gum arabic and water; if red ink was desired, iron filings were added to its ingredients. Pens were hollow reeds. shaped and split like our quill pens.

From the third century B.C. papyrus became the chief writing material in the world of the Greeks and Romans. Its use declined in Europe after the Arab conquest of Egypt in A.D. 641, but persisted in the Near East for a long time. It was between the middle of the tenth and the middle of the eleventh century that its manufacture ceased for good, owing to over-exploitation of the papyrus beds and, more important, the competition of the cheaper rag paper introduced by the Arabs from the Far East. The ostraca, to which reference has been made above, are broken pieces of pottery used as a cheap form of writing material in the eastern Mediterranean area. For the most part, they comprise receipts and other short business documents, private letters, and memoranda of various sorts.

Although the use of papyrus for writing purposes was so widespread, it is only in Egypt that papyri have survived in great numbers. The dry climate and dry soil in Egypt above the Delta and outside the irrigated area have combined to protect from rotting not only the papyri carefully buried in tombs but also those which were abandoned in deserted towns and villages, whether in the buildings themselves or, as was more usual in courtyards and refuse heaps.

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