Monica Tsuneishi: Making Papyrus

By Monica Tsuneishi, Papyrology Collection Manager at the University of Michigan:

At its core, making sheets for writing out of the papyrus plant (in the sedge family) is relatively simple.  Starting with a long stalk of the plant, you cut off the top umbel off, as well as the bottom of the stalk, detaching it from the rhizome base.  Next, you cut or strip off the outer, hard green layer, leaving only the soft, spongy inner pith. The pith is then cut into thin strips and soaked for three to six days (with three days providing a lighter sheet and six providing a darker one).  After soaking, the pith strips are then rolled out flat with a rolling pin to squeeze out extra water, and the strips are laid out—horizontally on one size and vertically on the other.  The sheet should then be rolled and pressed together and then pressed under a heavy weight for drying (in ancient Egypt, they left it out in the sun to dry after pressed under heavy weight, but Michigan’s climate does not lend itself well to this).  No glue is required, since the pressing of the pith strips locks the fibers together (in antiquity, Egyptians believed it was the magic of the Nile water, but Ann Arbor tap water seems to work as well).  Once dried, the sheet can be burnished with pumice, with care not to make the sheet too smooth (or ink will not hold to it).

In practice, this can be a little more difficult for making a sheet of the same quality as those made by the ancient Egyptians.  Mainly, the papyrus plants we use today are not of the same quality as those from antiquity.  Ancient Egyptians farmed papyri for the purpose of making sheets and chose plants with the best properties.  Those farms have long since died out, and the papyrus plants we find today—even those that grow by the Nile now, which were reintroduced to Egypt in the 1870s—do not lend themselves quite as well to the manufacture of papyrus sheets.  Moreover, those who made papyrus in antiquity did so all day every day with set standards, so while it is not necessary to be an “expert” to make papyrus, it is certainly a skill that improves with practice and repetition most people today (myself included!) have not engaged in. 

Further Reading:

Gaudet, John. 2014. Papyrus: The Plant that Changed the World–From Ancient Egypt to Today’s Water Wars. New York, Pegasus Books.

Lewis, Naphtali. 1974. Papyrus in Classical Antiquity. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lewis, Naphtali. 1989. Papyrus in Classical Antiquity: A Supplement. Bruxelles: Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth.

Parkinson, Richard and Stephen Quirke. 1995. Papyrus. Austin: University of Texas Press.