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Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition: Excavations and Finds

Manufacture of papyrus paper

Methods employed (or tried!) since the 18th century differ in various details but all broadly follow the same lines. The papyrus plant grows in the wild to a height of around fifteen feet, and has a triangular-section stem from which the ‘paper’ is made. A section of stem a foot or eighteen inches long has its green outer layer peeled off, and is then sliced lengthwise to provide long thin strips, typically an inch and a half wide and an eighth of an inch or less thick. These are then laid side by side vertically to make an area around the size of an A4 sheet. Shorter strips are then laid on top, side by side horizontally, and then the resulting grid is beaten or rolled to flatten and ‘weld’ the strips together and remove excess moisture. No glue is used. Stacks of such sheets are then placed in a moisture-absorbing press, and when dry may be glued together to make a roll ready for use.

The methods are fully explained in Dr. Hassan Ragab’s book Le Papyrus; we disagree with his exposition in that the Oxyrhynchus collection’s papyri regularly have their constituent strips butted up against each other — not overlapping, as he advises — even though this can lead to gaps in the surface and occasionally right through the papyrus. The manufacturing process can be followed in practice at Dr. Ragab’s Institute in Cairo, and at the Museo del Papiro in Siracusa in Sicily, where the papyrus plant (introduced from Egypt in Greco-Roman times?) now grows naturally along the lower reaches of the R.Ciane just before it flows into the Syracusan lagoon. At the Museo del Papiro, chemical analytical experiments are in progress, suggesting there were additives made in antiquity to achieve flexibility and protect from mould; and their DNA research may establish the origin — Egyptian or Syracusan — of papyri found outside Egypt.

Modern Egyptian-manufactured papyrus sheets have a rough surface, not easy to write on, and the component strips overlap as Oxyrhynchite experience suggests they should not. They also lack the amazing flexibility of samples prepared in the Museo del Papiro.