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Ancient Papyrus Scrolls: Materials, Production, Grades, Writing, and Usage

Papyrus was the predominant writing material used in antiquity, especially in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome for over 3000 years until parchment and vellum started replacing it around the 2nd century AD. Papyrus sheets were constructed from the fibrous interior of the papyrus plant which was abundant in the Nile delta wetlands of Egypt. The plant grew across Egypt and surrounding regions like Sicily, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa, however, the center of papyrus production and trade in antiquity remained Egypt. Papyrus sheets were bonded together in layers using the plant's sticky sap to form scrolls of varying lengths. Papyrus scrolls were the main medium for preserving and transmitting literature, religious texts, and documents in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East regions. 


This article will provide a comprehensive overview of various aspects related to ancient papyrus scrolls. It is divided into the following sections - papyrus plant and sheet-making process, scroll construction methods, the papyrus trade and grading systems, writing conventions for papyrus scrolls, storage solutions, and usage of scrolls in daily life. Relevant archaeological, historical, and literary evidence will be examined for each section. The production, evolution, and decline of papyrus as a writing medium over centuries will also be analyzed in detail.


The Papyrus Plant


The papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) was a reedy wetland plant that grew abundantly in the shallow freshwater pools and marshes of the Nile Delta in Egypt. It could grow up to 4-5 meters in height. The plant has a triangular green stem from which grows slender, thread-like green branches that can reach 1 cm thickness near the base. The ancient Egyptians called the plant djet or tjufi (derived from the word for pith or marrow). 


Papyrus was also found in Southern Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, Sicily, Syria, and as far as the Niger River basin but Egypt remained the center of papyrus production in antiquity. Egypt's dry climate, irrigation system sustaining the Nile delta wetlands, and advanced production processes allowed it to dominate papyrus exports to Greece, Rome, and the Mediterranean region for centuries.


A common misconception is that the papyrus plant has grown in Egypt without interruption since ancient times. However, the species did go extinct in its original Egyptian habitat at a point in history. According to scholars, after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century AD, when papyrus was replaced by cheaper paper, cultivation dwindled and eventually stopped altogether. This caused the Cyperus papyrus species to disappear from the region.


Then during the 18th century, papyrus samples preserved in European herbaria led to plans to reintroduce the plant to the Nile delta some 1000 years after it originally died out in Egypt. Botanist Bernardino Drovetti who was working as the French Consul-General in Egypt imported papyrus plants from Sicily and successfully planted them in Egyptian marshlands along the Nile in the early 1800s. Modern-day papyrus fields found in Egyptian wetlands thus trace their lineage directly back to samples rescued from the verge of global extinction.


Making Papyrus Sheets and Scrolls 

Papyrus Sheets
Papyrus Sheets

The process of making papyrus sheets and scrolls was well-established in ancient Egypt since the 3rd millennium BCE. Textual evidence for the production process also comes from Greek historians Herodotus and Pliny the Elder who visited Egypt during the 5th and 1st centuries BCE when it was under Greek and Roman rule.


The process began with harvesting mature papyrus stalks in late summer when the pith was ripe and juicy. The outer rind was first stripped off, then the stalk was cut lengthwise into very thin strips (5 cm wide or less) using a sharp knife. These strips were crushed between mallets to break down the fibers and were soaked in water for several days to dissolve starches and sugars. 


The strips were then beaten repeatedly with wooden mallets and interwoven at right angles on a flat wet board to form a lattice-like sheet. Pieces were woven with horizontal strips on top and laid crosswise over vertical base strips. Skilled beaters could produce sheets of uniform thickness and smoothness. The sap acted as a natural glue binding the strips together as it dried into a thin, strong, durable but flexible sheet.


These papyrus mats were then soaked in water, layered, pressed, bonded into standard-size sheets, and dried under pressure using wooden frames, rods, and stone weights. Multiple sheets could be fused into scrolls using plant sap or wheat paste as adhesive and flattening under weights. One sheet was often pasted to multiple sheets to create stronger scrolls for lengthy works. 


The lengths of scrolls varied greatly based on intended usage, but standards did evolve. Royal scribes in Egypt's New Kingdom period (1550–1069 BCE) used scrolls 5 to 9 meters long which could contain an entire work. Average scroll lengths were around 5 meters in Greek and Roman times, with 35 lines per column. During Roman times, scrolls up to 40 meters long containing Homer's works and Torah texts have been discovered. For public readings or portability, shorter one-meter scrolls were also made. 


Scroll Construction and Format Conventions 

Egyptian Papyrus Scrolls by BOOKFORGE
Egyptian Papyrus Scrolls by BOOKFORGE

Papyrus scrolls were made by bonding sheets of papyrus end to end using plant-based glue and pressed under weights. A wooden rod called an umbilicus was attached at both ends around which the scroll was rolled. The standard scroll format was to have vertical columns between margins, separated by margins of 2-3 cm. The text was written continuously between columns top to down, requiring the reader to scroll (unroll) a portion to advance through the text. 


Longer works were divided into separate books or volumes. At the ends were protective blank columns without text. Titles or subject matter were sometimes written on these end columns, but external tags called sillybos were also attached summarizing contents. Column width and margins were laid out using handheld frames leaving horizontal guidelines. Scribes used these frames to ensure consistency.


The side of the papyrus strips that were originally laid horizontally on the wet board became the smoother ‘recto’ side of the finished sheet and scroll. The rougher and more absorbent ‘verso’ underside was typically reserved for drafts or informal writings. Finer literary works and sacred texts were written on the smooth recto for clarity and longevity.


While most papyrus scrolls were written along the fibers in columns, some shorter administrative documents were oriented across (horizontally) for space efficiency. This allowed more lines within the height but made continuous writing difficult.  Vertical scrolls done by skilled scribes remained the preferred format for readability and flexibility. Roman expertise and infrastructure allowed mass production of vertically aligned scrolls to meet imperial scale demand.


Grades and Quality of Papyrus


Not all papyrus sheets and scrolls were equal in quality, texture, or color. Their grade and price varied based on the part of the stalk used, the care during sheet making, overall quality, and defects. The finest quality papyrus was made using thin strips only from the lower narrow part of the stalk near the plant roots. Better adhesion between strips created thinner, smoother, lighter, and more brilliant sheets.


Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, in his work Natural History, written during the 1st century AD, recorded at least eight established grades of papyrus prevalent in Roman Egypt. The two premier grades were: 


1. “Augustan” or “hieratic” papyrus – Made using the finest strips from the plant base, with the highest whiteness and finest texture. Used for sacred literature. 


2. “Livian” papyrus – Almost as fine in quality as Augustan grade but not quite white in color. Used for correspondence.


The lower grades had more fibrous and imperfect textures and darker shades of yellow-white. These were named after prominent Roman figures like Fannian, Amphitheatric, Saitic, Taeneotic, and more. Lower grades were used for wrapping, cordage, and everyday uses like notes and receipts.


The differing thickness and absorbency of various papyrus grades necessitated the production of different pens and inks optimized for each grade. Dark carbon inks were suitably dense for shop-quality papyrus whereas lighter brown iron-gall-based inks gave superior results on finer grades.


Writing and Illustration Methods 


The ancient Egyptians developed hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts for writing on papyrus which was later adapted by Greeks into a phonetic alphabet. Several writing implements were employed on papyrus scrolls by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Sharpened reeds were most commonly used as pens, made from rushes or seed pods. More durable metal pens were also made from copper, bronze, and iron alloys with thin serifs and carefully crafted writing tips. These were reusable but still required constant sharpening like quill pens.


Inks were derived from mixtures of carbon soot, lamp black, and pigments with water, tree gum, and animal glue as binding agents. The viscosity and dye quality differed based on ingredient ratios. The inks ranged across black, brown, yellow, red, and purple hues. Red ink was often used just for titles and annotations.


Illustrations and paintings were done using pens and brushes with similar carbon and plant-based pigments mixed with egg yolk or wax. Egyptian artisans prepared custom colors for elaborate tomb paintings. Detailed Greek illustrations and decorative artwork adorned mythological and scientific texts on papyrus. 


Daily Usage and Handling 


In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, the use of papyrus scrolls was widespread in royal households, temples, courts, commercial establishments, and among the literate populace. However, books were expensive, so personal ownership was often limited to the very wealthy. City archives, religious institutions, universities, and public libraries had the most extensive collections. For nobility and high government officials, customized scrolls with costlier grades, fine calligraphy, illustrations, and decorative paintings were produced as luxury possessions and status symbols across kingdoms.


To protect scrolls from dust, moisture, and wear/tear, they were tightly rolled or wrapped in additional papyrus sheets and then stored upright in pottery jars or cylindrical capsules made of wood/ivory/metal placed on shelves. Identification tags called sillybos were attached to ends with cords so scrolls could be easily pulled out for reading. Intricate wooden book boxes with carved panels, pegs, and compartments also stored multiple scrolls and writing equipment. 


For daily writing or reading, one or a few connected scrolls were unfurled sidewise using both hands with care not to crack the surface. Enough text columns were unrolled to the left or right for continuous reading without obstructing previously read portions. Using delicate finger movements, the scroll was gradually rolled with one hand while being held flat in the other across the lap or on a table. The exposed text was read column by column top to bottom. Established libraries had procedures for carefully handling scrolls to maximize longevity over centuries.


Evolution of Book Formats 


For over 3000 years, papyrus scrolls served as the primary medium across ancient civilizations for recording literature, sacred texts, mathematical treatises, government laws and tax records, court proceedings, business transactions, and all aspects of administrative life. However, the scroll format had limitations for indexing, page flipping, durability, and size. This led to the eventual evolution of bound paper codices and the decline of scrolls. 


By the 1st century AD, the alternative codex format with its wax/wood/ivory tablets filled with smoothed papyrus sheets stitched along one side was gaining prominence around the Mediterranean. It is believed by scholars that the first codices were likely developed and used by Roman auxiliaries and legions two centuries earlier for field records and note-taking. The codex form offered more flexibility in accessing text across multiple bound pages rather than unrolling fragile 40-meter-long scrolls. Easy portability, affordability, and easy concealment in folded positions also favored codices. 


Technical books on engineering, architecture, and mathematics could contain more helpful diagrams and renditions with codex pages that stayed open flat rather than curling scrolls. By the 6th century AD, the dominance of the ancient papyrus scroll had been largely supplanted by vellum/parchment codices in Europe.




For over three millennia, papyrus was the primary writing medium that helped preserve and transmit early literature, religious texts, philosophical works, and advanced technology and administration through the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and early Byzantine eras. Papyrus scrolls played a pivotal role in the development of human culture, knowledge systems, laws, and government processes across Classical antiquity in the Mediterranean and adjoining regions. 


The production, use, and influence of the ubiquitous papyrus scroll persisted over three thousand years until environmental upheavals and the more convenient codex format precipitated its decline around the 4th century AD. However, the rich literary and artistic heritage preserved down centuries on fragile, yet hardy papyrus scrolls provide enduring proof of both material prosperity and advanced civilization in the ancient world.


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