As a writing material, papyrus was in use in Egypt from at least 3000 BCE until as late as the tenth century CE. It was manufactured from the papyrus plant, (Cyperus papyrus), which grew along the Nile River. This plant is only one of some six hundred species with the genus Cyperus, which all belong to the far larger family of sedges (Cyperaceae). In antiquity, the papyrus plant was widespread in the Nile Valley, but it was overused and so nearly disappeared from there before modern times; it now flourishes chiefly in eastern and central Africa. It grows best in marshland, prefers shallow and still or relatively slow-moving water, or soil that is at the least water-logged. A number of modern subspecies have been identified; it is not clear how these relate to the plant that was exploited in antiquity and then removed in making way for agricultural land.

Ancient Egyptian terms for the “papyrus plant” were wʒḏ, ṯwfy, and ḏt, the last two also being used for “papyrus marsh.” The most common term for the writing material made from the plant stem was ḏmʿ, which could also signify a “manufactured roll,” an “inscribed book,” or a “document,” as well as a papyrus employed to make other objects. A term for “bookroll” or “scroll” was ʿrt, used of both papyrus and leather rolls, and for inscribed rolls, both literary and documentary.

The Greeks referred to the writing material as either bublos (later biblos) or papuros. The latter term is generally explained as deriving from an Egyptian expression pʒ-pr-ʿʒ, which might mean “the [thing] belonging to Pharaoh,” and might indicate that papyrus was perceived to be the chief Egyptian product, or export, under royal control. No such phrase is actually attested in Egyptian, however, and the adoption by the Greeks of an Egyptian-language term (even if it had been borrowed indirectly) would suggest that it was first in common use among Egyptians. The derivation is thus problematic.

The question remains as to whether or not the cultivation of papyrus and the manufacture of the writing material was in fact under state control. For dynastic times, we have scarcely any evidence. We know that papyrus could be bought and sold. It is argued that, during dynastic times, the sheer quantity of papyrus that we may deduce was consumed by the bureaucracy would rule out both the possibility of small-scale production to meet local needs, and that of a single, central “state factory.” Large-scale production at many locations all over Egypt is generally guessed to be the most likely. Modern attempts at papyrus manufacture have in recent years begun to be able to rival the quality of the ancient product. They suggest that considerable skill and experience is required, that discrimination is needed in the harvesting of the plant, which may well have needed to be cultivated, and that probably only freshly gathered papyrus can be used. All this hints that small-scale, ad hoc manufacture is unlikely to have been successful or common.

For Greco-Roman times, we have some documentary evidence concerning papyrus manufacture. There are indications of widespread factories in the Nile Delta, but there is no reason to suppose that papyrus was not made elsewhere in the Nile Valley. The trade in papyrus seems to have been centered upon Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast. We have no decisive evidence as to whether the manufacture and trade were state operated. If they were entirely state owned, it would be a little surprising that our sources did not reveal this. For the Ptolemaic period, our knowledge of the general methods of the administration would suggest at least that close state supervision would be likely. Some papyrus was available only from “royal sales offices,” but there was patently no complete royal monopoly on sales.

Our evidence for the process of manufacturing papyrus as a writing material is very restricted. From dynastic times, a few tomb scenes depict its harvesting. They are often associated with scenes of building papyrus boats, however, and there is no representation of making the writing material. Inferences about manufacture can be drawn from the examination of surviving papyri, and damaged fragments can be more revealing than well-preserved rolls. A special case of this is fragments recovered from cartonnage, scrap pieces of papyrus formed with the aid of gesso and glue into molded mummy casings, especially during Ptolemaic times. The various wet processes used to extract the papyrus from the cartonnage—both outmoded methods employing acid and present-day enzyme techniques—can reveal the structure of the material. Modern experiments in papyrus manufacture have led to several advances in understanding. They have particularly helped in considering the way in which papyrus strips bond together, and what details of the processing may encourage or impede the binding.

From the Greco-Roman period, a description of the making of papyrus sheets and rolls was recorded by Pliny the Elder. His account is extremely difficult to follow, and it remains disputed how Pliny obtained his information, how fully he understood it, and to what extent the surviving manuscripts may present a garbled text. Some details, however, seem plausible, and Pliny's account cannot be completely ignored.

The stalk of the papyrus plant is triangular in cross section. It has a tough outer rind, which was discarded in papyrus manufacture. This encloses a soft, spongy, white pith, given a degree of strength by many so-called fibers (fibrovascular bundles), which run the entire length of the stalk and are very visible in the finished papyrus. The process probably proceeded by slicing or peeling the pith into thin strips, about 1 to 3 centimeters (0.5 to 1.25 inches) wide. A series of these was laid down side by side. Sometimes they were arranged to be very slightly overlapping, and sometimes just touching each other. Modern experience in manufacture shows that with care the latter arrangement can be achieved without the risk that gaps may subsequently appear. A second, similar layer of strips was then laid down upon the first, with the strips running at right angles to those of the first layer. The resulting sheet was then consolidated by pressing or by careful beating and was allowed to dry. The component cells of the spongy matter of the pith (parenchyma cells) physically interlock, and the two layers of papyrus are held firmly together by this bond.

Evidently, the practice was to have the sheets made into rolls, and we have no evidence that single sheets as manufactured were available. A writer needing a simple sheet of papyrus cut what was required from a roll with a sharp knife, either before or after writing the text. Rolls were made by pasting a series of sheets together with a starch paste, each sheet overlapping its neighbor by 1 to 3 centimeters (0.5 to 1.25 inches). There is good evidence that a roll of twenty sheets was the standard length. The user could cut the roll to obtain a shorter length, or paste rolls or parts of rolls together for a longer text. A few papyrus rolls from dynastic Egypt are of extraordinary length (the longest known measures 42 meters/130 feet), but these are funerary books or other works that were not meant for routine consultation. Literary or administrative rolls were much more commonly only a few meters in length.

Another dimension that varied was the width of the roll. The papyrus roll was normally used lying horizontally across the lap of the writer or reader. Egyptian scripts run from right to left, and so the roll was unrolled progressively from the left hand into the right hand. The width of the roll corresponded to the height of the individual pages of writing and is usually referred to as the “height” of the roll. This dimension varied greatly according to the kind of text, and from period to period. Thus a late New Kingdom literary text might typically be written on a roll only 10 to 12 centimeters (4 to 6 inches) high, whereas an account roll of the same period might measure over 40 centimeters (15 inches) in height. The latter would be a complete roll as manufactured, but the former would be made by the user, who sliced through the roll to produce two, three, or four rolls of lesser height.

In the classical world, papyrus exported from Egypt was regarded as the chief writing material. The earliest papyri from Egypt written in Greek date to the fourth century BCE, but papyrus was evidently already widely used in Greece in the sixth century BCE, when, for example, papyrus rolls were depicted in vase paintings. How early papyrus began to be exported to Greece is uncertain (and evidence for the use of writing is not evidence for the use of papyrus). Suggestions that it may already have been known in the Bronze Age Aegean remain unsubstantiated, although it was no doubt utilized in the Levant throughout the first millennium BCE.

Papyrus ceased to be used, in Europe as in Egypt, around 1000 CE. Some papyrus documents have survived in the papal and other chancelleries. Carbonized papyri from Herculaneum, one of the towns buried by lava from Vesuvius, in Italy, were Greek philosophical texts, and they began to be studied as early as the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, some accidental finds of Greek papyri in Egypt came onto the antiquities market. In the 1870s, expansions in Egypt's agriculture led to the large-scale extraction of fertile soil from the abandoned sites of ancient towns. There, great quantities of papyrus—chiefly in Greek, Coptic, and Arabic—began to come to light in the rubbish dumps of former Greco-Roman towns, principally in the Faiyum but also, for example, at Hermopolis and Herakleopolis. The Greek papyri, in particular, were eagerly acquired by foreign museums and libraries. For example, about 70,000 Greek papyri from the Faiyum are now in the Vienna library's collection. In the 1890s, excavations began to be financed with the specific aim of discovering papyri. The most productive were the seasons at Oxyrhynchus in Middle Egypt, beginning in 1896. Sites became progressively denuded by the removal of fertile soil, but the era of excavations in search of papyri did not come to an end until the 1930s.


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Bridget Leach and John Tait