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Ancient Egyptian Papyrus: Paintings & Scrolls

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore ancient Egyptian papyrus. One of the oldest writing mediums ever used, papyrus was highly prized in ancient Egyptian culture and its manufacture a closely guarded state secret.

First Notebooks

Notebooks and the paper within them are so ubiquitous we never really stop to think about them. Paper is everywhere throughout our day: we take notes, make copies, fill out forms - most of us even have a tiny pad of paper on our desk! We use it so much it is hard to imagine what life would be without it.

The ancient Egyptians, however, had that very real problem. They had developed a language with a written notation system, but did not yet have a cheap and easily manufactured material to write on. The need for a simpler and lighter writing surface led the Egyptians to develop the Egyptian papyrus, one of the oldest writing mediums and a precursor to our paper notebooks of today.

What is Papyrus and How Was it Made?

Papyrus was made from the Cyperus papyrus plant, which flourished in the ancient Nile River delta. Growing in the shallows along the banks of the river, the papyrus plant resembles North American freshwater reeds or cat tails, though its stems are thicker and more fibrous and, if not harvested, can reach heights of four or five meters. The ancient Egyptians made papyrus by removing the outer layer of the plant and cutting the thick, inner pith into strips. Egyptians guarded the secrets of their papyrus industry closely, and the exact manufacturing process is unknown. However, historians have deduced from surviving samples that, likely, after the strips dried, two layers of strips were laid perpendicular to each other, and then either pounded or glued together.

History of Papyrus and Important Documents

A piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written on papyrus
A piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written on papyrus

Papyrus was likely first manufactured on a large scale early in the fourth millennium B.C., though the oldest surviving papyrus sample dates farther back, to around 4500 B.C. Though the papyrus sheets and scrolls were most commonly used as a writing surface, the ancient Egyptians had many uses for papyrus. It was used to make sandals, hats, mattresses, baskets, ropes, and other household necessities. As mentioned earlier, papyrus and its manufacture were highly prized in ancient Egypt, and soon after its development, the Egyptian state imposed a state-run monopoly on both the plant and the manufacturing process.

Papyrus maintained its prominence in the Egyptian and wider western cultures up until the development of parchment and vellum in Europe, early in the Common Era (after 0 A.D.), which were both lighter and more durable than papyrus. However, papyrus continued to be used regularly in Egypt for several centuries afterwards.

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