Papyrus Making 101: rediscovering the craft of making ancient paper  

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 1100 AD.

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 and Romans.

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.