Proserpina's WunderBlog

The road to paper-making, Part I

By: Proserpina, 6:18 PM GMT on May 30, 2012


Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if paper had not been invented? Imagine a world without accessible books, no newspapers, no magazines, no toilet paper, no watercolor paper, no writing stationary, no paper cups and plates, … The list of modern conveniences made with paper is endless.

Communication has been a basic need of human beings and written communication has been the center of civilization.

From the earliest times of history man conveyed his thoughts and information without using paper. Oral transmission was the obvious method but man needed to communicate in ways other than verbal means. Cave drawings provided a non verbal means of communication but cave walls are not portable and man had to find other means to communicate.

Photobucket Lascaux

Cave paintings at Lascaux, France

Some of the early surfaces for ‘written’ communication were stone, clay tablets and clay bricks, metal, wood, wax tablets, ivory, palm and olive trees leaves, bark, papyrus, and parchment. Obviously most of these materials were not practical and thus not conducive to widespread use.

Before paper as we know it today was invented, there were two important materials for making acceptable writing surfaces, papyrus and parchment.


The English word papyrus derives, via Latin, from Greek πάπυρος (papuros)

Papyrus ‘paper’ was first used by the Babylonians and since 3000 B.C. by the Egyptians. The ‘paper’ was made from the Cyperus Papyrus plant which grew on the shorelines of streams and particularly in the Nile Delta of Egypt.

Papermaming Papyrus

Papermaking Papyrus plant

The primary type of paper made with papyrus was in the form of scrolls. Scrolls were used to keep records of happenings in the Egyptian society. Some examples of existing scrolls are: Book of the dead, treaties on medicine and surgery, treaties on mathematics, folk tales.

Papyrus Book of the dead, Egypt

"Book Of The Dead" on papyrus

The following is a description of how the papyrus ‘paper’ was made: “The "paper" from the papyrus plant was made from the stem of the plant. The outer rind is first stripped off, and the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips. The strips are then placed side by side on a hard surface with their edges slightly overlapping, and then another layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle. While still moist, the two layers are hammered together, mashing the layers into a single sheet. The moisture or juice from the strips function as adhesive between the layers. The sheet is then dried under pressure.” ( of_paper)

The papyrus ‘paper’ was also used in the Mediterranean region, particularly by the Romans and Greeks.

Of interest is the Villa of the Papyri found at the ancient town of Herculaneum, destroyed in the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD. The Villa which was unearthed in 1753 belonged to Julius Caesar’s father in law.

villa dei papiri, mosaic floor

Villa dei Papiri, (Mosaic floor)

Within the Villa is found the only library preserved from the classical world. Included in the library are 1,785 papyrus scrolls, carbonized but preserved by the pyroclastic flow of superheated gas, steam, and mud. They are known as the Herculaneum Papyri.

Papyrus at Herculaneum

Carbonized Papyrus Scroll

Obviously the scrolls cannot be unrolled as they would disintegrate, however modern technology using multi-spectral imaging has assisted in actually reading the scrolls!

Papyrus at Herculaneum

Papyrus Scroll at Herculaneum

Another example of classical literary illustration on papyrus (from the Mediterranean area) is the Heracles Papyrus. This is a fragment of a 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles. It contains three unframed colored line drawings of the first of the Labors, the killing of the Nemean Lion.

Heracles Papyrus

Heracles Papyrus

The photos below are samples of very interesting papyrus remnants:

Papyrus, Ephesians

One leaf of the Pauline Epistles (P.Mich.inv. 6238, also known as P46), Ephesians VI:20 - Galatians I:8. This is the oldest copy of Paul's letters in existence, dating to the late 2nd/early 3rd century CE.

Papyrus, Homer's Iliad

Homer's Iliad 1.32-57 on papyrus (P.Mich.inv. 13). This fragment dates to the 2nd/3rd century CE.

This was going to be a simple, short blog on paper-making but I got interested in other facets of the topic and the 'short blog' has grown into several posts to follow this first part.

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Updated: 8:44 PM GMT on June 16, 2012


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