What is papyrus?

Papyrus is the paper invented by the ancient Egyptians about 5,000 years ago. In fact the word paper comes from papyrus!

A lot of papyrus has been found from thousands of years ago, which shows that it lasts very well - much better than the paper we use today.

This is the papyrus of Hunefer, which you can see in the British Museum in London.

Where does papyrus come from?

Papyrus comes from the papyrus plant. This is a tall reed with a triangular stem and fan-shaped feathery flowers.

This picture shows a papyrus plant at the Eden project in Cornwall. Click here to see some more pictures of the papyrus plants at the Eden Project.

The papyrus plant was very important to the Egyptians, not just to make paper. 

The roots were eaten by children, and papyrus was used to make rope, boats, even houses.

 Also the papyrus stood for Lower Egypt (the northern part of the  country). 

Papyrus plants are often shown in paintings.

Where does papyrus grow?

Papyrus no longer grows wild in Egypt, but it used to be found along the river, especially in marshy areas. Nowadays it is grown in Egypt only on special farms for making paper for tourists. And school children!

Ancient Egyptians used to enjoy hunting and fishing in the marshes, amid the papyrus thickets. Lots of wildlife lived there, including ducks, mice, and crocodiles. 

This picture is my copy of a scene from the tomb of Nakht, a nobleman. It shows him hunting birds in the papyrus.

How was papyrus made?

The triangular stems of the papyrus plant were used to make papyrus. The outer green layer was removed, then the white fleshy part was cut into thin strips. These strips were rolled out to flatten them, then laid next to each other in rows.

Then another layer of rows was put on top, going the other way.

The two layers were then pressed together for a few days. The juices in the stems acted like a glue, and the strips all stuck together.

The sheet was left to dry, and then it was ready to write on.

The same method is still used today to make papyrus!

What colour is papyrus?

When it is freshly made, papyrus is pale yellow, like the background to this web page. It only goes dark yellow-brown after a long time.

This is the Chester Beatty I Papyrus in the British Museum. It is 5 metres long when unrolled. It has a story on it as well as some love songs.

What is a papyrus book?

Papyrus sheets were stuck together and made into rolls. These could be very long. The Great Harris Papyrus in the British Museum is 41 metres long!

So there were no books like the ones we have today.

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