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Updated on May 6, 2010

Papyrus is a swamp plant (Cyperus papyrus) of the sedge family that grows in standing water. In antiquity it nourished in the Nile Valley and Delta and was also found along the Euphrates and in Syria. The plant now grows wild only along the banks of the Blue and White Niles and in Sicily, the Syrian variety having been introduced into that island probably during the Arab occupation. The triangular stalk, which may attain the thickness of a man's wrist and grow to a height of 10 feet (3 meters), was an important raw material for the manufacture of, among other things, rope, sails, light skiffs, shoes, and most notably the writing material also known as papyrus.

Photo by Shirley Smits
Photo by Shirley Smits

Use as a Writing Material

The origins of papyrus manufacture are unknown, but an unin-scribed roll was found in an Egyptian tomb of the First Dynasty (about 3100 B.C.). In Egypt during the Pharaonic period, the manufacture of papyrus seems to have been controlled by the temples, and under the Ptolemies it was a royal monopoly.

Papyrus continued to be the chief writing medium throughout the Roman Empire, but by the 3rd century A.D. it was beginning to be replaced by parchment, which was cheaper. Papyrus was still used for some official documents under the Merovingian kings, and the popes continued to use it for their bulls well into the 11th century.


From the account of the Roman author Pliny the Elder (1st century A.D. ), from an examination of ancient papyri, and by modern experimentation, it has been possible to reconstruct the main steps in the manufacture of papyrus. The stalks were cut into pieces about 18 inches (46 cm) in length. The rough bast was stripped off, and the pith, or remainder of the stalk, was split into thin narrow strips. These strips were then laid out upon a hard surface in two layers, with the strips of one layer at right angles to the strips of the other and with the strips of the same layer slightly overlapping each other. The two layers were pressed and beaten, and the starchy adhesive juice of the plant stuck the layers and strips together. The edges were trimmed, and the surfaces were smoothed with a stone or shell. The result was a pliant and durable paper, which when new and of good quality was pure white. Several grades were manufactured, down to ordinary wrapping paper.

The papyrus sheets were pasted together into rolls that averaged 20 sheets each. The surface whose fibers ran parallel to the long margin of the rolls was on the inside and was usually the first to receive writing. The outermost, and therefore first, sheet of the roll sometimes had its exposed end reinforced by a thin strip. Rolls ranged in height to a maximum of 18.5 inches (47 cm). If greater length was desired, rolls could be joined. The longest papyrus known- Papyrus Harris No. 1 in the British Museum, London, from the 20th Dynasty, measures 133 feet (40.5 meters).


Since the mid-19th century, the increasing number of discoveries of ancient papyri, particularly in the dry soil of Egypt, has led to the development of their care and study (papyrology) as a specialized branch of historical research. The investigations of papyrologists have resulted in the recovery of a number of lost works of important ancient writers, such as Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, orations by Hyperides, a complete play by Menander, and many metrical fragments, including poems of Sappho. Not the least of the merits of the papyri is the insight they give into the affairs of some of the humbler folk of antiquity.


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