How Egyptian Papyrus Is Made: Watch Artisans Keep a 5,000-Year-Old Art Alive

In 2013, French Egyp­tol­o­gist Pierre Tal­let dis­cov­ered in an exca­va­tion site near the Red Sea “entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still rel­a­tive­ly intact, writ­ten in hiero­glyph­ics as well as hier­at­ic, the cur­sive script the ancient Egyp­tians used for every­day com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” Alexan­der Stille writes at Smith­son­ian. The scrolls con­tained the “Diary of Mer­er,” the jour­nals of an offi­cial who led a trans­porta­tion crew, and who observed the build­ing of the largest of the pyra­mids. It has been called “the great­est dis­cov­ery in Egypt in the 21st cen­tu­ry.”

The dis­cov­ery of the diary entries and oth­er papyri at the site “pro­vide a nev­er-before-seen snap­shot of the ancients putting fin­ish­ing touch­es on the Great Pyra­mid.” It is also sig­nif­i­cant since Tal­let found “the old­est known papyri in the world” and has helped give researchers greater insight into how papyrus was used by ancient Egyp­tians for care­ful record-keep­ing — in both the lan­guage of priests and scribes and that of ordi­nary mer­chants — since around 3000 BC.

Papyrus was “pro­duced exclu­sive­ly in Egypt, where the papyrus plant grew” notes Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Libraries, but “papyrus (the writ­ing mate­r­i­al) was export­ed through­out the clas­si­cal world, and it was the most pop­u­lar writ­ing mate­r­i­al for the ancient Greeks and Romans,” becom­ing the most used plat­form for writ­ing by the first cen­tu­ry AD. That changed with the intro­duc­tion of parch­ment and, lat­er, paper; “the large plan­ta­tions in Egypt which used to cul­ti­vate high-grade papyrus for man­u­fac­ture dis­ap­peared,” as did the knowl­edge of papyrus-mak­ing for around 1000 years.

But papyrus (the paper) has come back, even if wild papyri plants are dis­ap­pear­ing as Egypt’s cli­mate changes. While schol­ars in the 20th cen­tu­ry tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to recon­struct papyrus-mak­ing using ancient sources like Pliny’s Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, Egypt­ian crafts­peo­ple in the 1970s rein­vent­ed the process using their own meth­ods, as you can see in the Busi­ness Insid­er video above. “The indus­try thrived, sell­ing papyrus art to tourists,” the video notes, but it has fall­en on hard times as the plants go extinct and demand falls away.

Learn above how mod­ern Egypt­ian papyrus-mak­ers, scribes, and illus­tra­tors ply their trade — a fair­ly good indi­ca­tor of how the ancients must have done it. There may be lit­tle demand for papyrus, or for parch­ment, for that mat­ter, and maybe paper will final­ly go the way of these obso­lete com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies before long. But as long as there are those who retain the knowl­edge of these arts, we’ll have an inti­mate phys­i­cal con­nec­tion to the writ­ers, artists, and bureau­crats of empires past.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Orig­i­nal Col­ors Still In It

Harvard’s Dig­i­tal Giza Project Lets You Access the Largest Online Archive on the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids (Includ­ing a 3D Giza Tour)

Who Built the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids & How Did They Do It?: New Arche­o­log­i­cal Evi­dence Busts Ancient Myths

Learn to Play Senet, the 5,000-Year Old Ancient Egypt­ian Game Beloved by Queens & Pharaohs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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