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What is Papyrus?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Papyrus is a crude form of paper which is made with the stalks of the papyrus plant, a reed native to the Mediterranean region. Papyrus was developed by the Ancient Egyptians, who allowed the technique to spread to other regions of the Mediterranean, setting the stage for the development of other flexible writing materials like vellum, and eventually modern paper. Thanks to Egypt's unique climate, it is possible to find ancient papyrus which can be used to learn more about Egyptian culture.

Prior to the development of paper, written records were kept on clay, wax, or stone tablets. These tablets would have been cumbersome to use and transport, and they also took up a great deal of space. When papyrus was developed, the Egyptians revolutionized recordkeeping and the accessibility of the written word, making it possible to keep extensive records on a wide variety of topics. Being able to examine these records has been a great book for archaeologists, who have used papyri to learn about Egyptian art, commerce, religious beliefs, and other aspects of Egyptian culture.

To make papyrus, the stalks of the reeds are macerated in water and then beaten to split the reeds. After being beaten, the reeds are overlaid over each other in two layers which run at right angles to each other, and then pressed and dried. As the papyrus dries, the layers pull together, creating a fairly strong, durable paper which was traditionally polished with stones to make the surface easier to write on.

The Egyptians stored their papyrus in the form of scrolls, attaching pieces of the paper for especially long documents. In the extremely arid, hot climate of Egypt, these scrolls have been astoundingly well preserved, with numerous extant examples being uncovered by historians. Unfortunately, in more humid climates, papyrus starts to rot and fall apart, and untold numbers of papyri were destroyed when scrolls were moved to Europe; numerous others were destroyed when papyrus was burned in the fireboxes of steam trains by English colonists in the 19th century. Today, collections of papyri are stored in carefully climate-controlled spaces to reduce the risk of damage.

For people familiar with modern paper, the coarse texture of papyrus would take some getting used two. Several companies make authentic papyrus, mainly as a novelty, and a few integrate papyrus fibers into their paper for a taste of the exotic without the inconvenience of true papyrus.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By tolleranza — On Jul 14, 2011

@aLfredo - The paper that looks like papyrus is actually called just that, papyrus stationery! I love its look and feel. I agree, this type of paper does add character to a note or menu.

Stationary stores may carry papyrus stationery. I've also used papyrus style paper for my resumes, to add some distinction to it!

By aLFredo — On Jul 14, 2011

I had always loved the font entitled papyrus, but I never knew where the name came from. It must come from what print looked like on this type of paper. The font has a flourish and 'distressed' look to it.

I've noticed that restaurants use a type of paper that also looks distressed, seemingly to add character to their menus. Where do they get this paper from?

By sweetPeas — On Jul 13, 2011

I wonder how much trial and error the Egyptian inventive mind went through to come up with the idea of making a thin paper to write on. With the only material for writing (stone, clay and wax) being so difficult to store and transport, it was probably a case of "necessity is the mother of invention." I would guess that the procedure may have been fairly easy. They must have been making mats out of plant stocks for a long time.

Probably, it was the task of making the papyrus smooth enough to provide a nice writing surface that took some experimentation.

These ideas are just my guesses. I'll have to do some research to find out more about the history of papyrus paper.

By Misscoco — On Jul 12, 2011

A young mother in my neighborhood told me about a project she did with her 10 year old son. He had been studying Egypt in school and became interested in papyrus paper. His mom decided to help him do some research on how to make papyrus paper. The mother had a papyrus plant growing in the backyard, so they decided to go ahead.

They cut some thick stalks, peeled off the outer green part, and cut into thin strips. Then they laid the strips out criss-cross, putting the strips as close together as possible. They put paper over the papyrus and used clamps to press out the moisture, and let it dry.

The son was very pleased with the "ancient paper" that he made. This is a great learning experience.

By poppyseed — On Jul 12, 2011

I never really understood what papyrus was until I read about it in The Da Vinci Code. Apparently, it was a commonly used type of paper-like material but it was also easily destroyed.

So Da Vinci used that little piece of information to create these keys (which were central to the Da Vinci Code’s whole story) where a secret message was put on a sheet of papyrus and enclosed inside of this device.

If anyone tried to break the key to get to the papyrus it would be destroyed by a vile full of vinegar designed to break if tampered with.

That way, secret messages being transported over long distances remained secret no matter what.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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