Papyrus: Creation and Preservation

What Is It?

Papyrus is a type of paper created from the pith, or the tissue in the stems, of Cyperus papyrus, also known as the papyrus plant. The term papyrus can refer to the paper itself or a collection of written sheets of papyrus bound and rolled together. Papyrus was first used in Egypt in the fourth millennium BCE and then spread throughout the Mediterranean region and the rest of the world. Papyrus was also used to make objects such as boats, mats, shoes, and baskets.

Peasants Papyrus

Egyptian Peasants Harvesting Papyrus

How is it created?

The pith of the papyrus plant is cut lengthwise into strips. The strips are then placed in an overlapping fashion, then another layer is laid on top going in the opposite direction. Before the strips are dry they are pressed or hammered together, bonding them into a single sheet. If the strips are dry when the sheets are being created, some sort of adhesive mixture is used. However, if the pith is fresh, the strips will adhere to each other naturally because of the sap present in the plant. The sheet is then dried and polished, often using a pumice stone or seashell. The sheets could then be cut into the desired size or combined using an adhesive to create a larger roll. Papyrus is identified by looking for the overlapping and cross-laminated structure.

Papyrus Plant and Paper

Cyperus papyrus Plant and Crude Papyrus Paper

How is it preserved? 

Papyrus is not very strong and can break quite easily. It can also become discolored, making it difficult to read the writing on the sheets. Papyrus contains lignin, which when exposed to light darkens the papyrus. Papyrus can also curl or fray at the edges. If kept in humid conditions, mould can destroy or damage papyrus. However, Papyrus is well preserved in dry, arid environment. Because of this, large numbers of fragments and papyrus documents have been discovered in Egypt.

In Europe, papyrus likely only survived for a few decades before it deteriorated due to environmental conditions. Papyrus was often preserved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by taping or gluing it to other materials including cloth, cardboard, cellulose nitrate, hardened gelatin, or by placing it between two pieces of glass and sealing the edges. However, acids can transfer from these materials to papyrus and may damage the papyrus when these materials are removed. Damaged papyrus documents can sometimes be repaired with wheat starch paste to mend breaks or tears. New techniques involve sandwiching the papyrus between layers of Stabiltex (a shear polyester multifilament), Plexiglas, and acrylic. This removes pressure from the artifact and protects it from light and adhesives.

Papyrus Preservation

Papyrus fragments held between two pieces of glass

What about Papyrus 66?

Papyrus 66 was discovered at Jabal Abu Mana in Egypt in 1952. Its discovery was remarkable for a number of reasons. Though its date of publication has been postulated to have been as early as the  second century, it is currently believed to have been written in the early or mid fourth century. Either way, it is one of the earliest and certainly most complete New Testament papyrus manuscripts to have been discovered. Its level of preservation is also astounding; its first twenty six leaves were almost entirely intact and even the original stitching of the binding was preserved with the manuscript. It is considered one of the most important New Testament manuscripts and is certainly one of the most complete links between modernity and the world of ancient Christians.