Ancient Egyptian papyrus was made into rolls by overlapping and gluing strips of the papyrus plant, creating durable and easily transportable scrolls for written texts that were vital for administrative, religious, and literary purposes. Easy and cheap to produce, papyrus was one of the most important cornerstones of the government of ancient Egypt.

Papyrus plant
Papyrus plant

Writing hieroglyphs on papyrus was cumbersome and time consuming, so the much easier and faster to write cursive hieroglyphs were developed. However, it was still relatively slow, which ultimately lead to the very fast hieratic script.

The manufacturing of papyrus involves several steps, from harvesting the raw material to creating the final writing surface. Pliny the elder wrote about the process already in the first century (Natural History, 13.23). Papyrus is made from the Cyperus papyrus plant Papyrus plant (Gardiner sign M13) (wꜢḏ) or Papyrus plant (Gardiner sign M15) (dyt), which still grows in marshy areas along the Nile. The traditional process of making papyrus went something like this:

The outer green layer of the stem is removed, leaving the inner white pith or stalk. The white pith is cut into long strips that are then split into thinner layers using a sharp tool, creating long, flexible ribbons that are soaked in water to soften the fibers and makes them more pliable. The soaked strips are laid out side by side, slightly overlapping, on a flat surface. The arrangement of the strips forms a layer for the width of the desired papyrus sheet.

Another layer of strips is placed perpendicular to the first layer, creating a crosshatch pattern. Using a mallet, the layers are then hammered to further facilitate bonding. The sheet is left to dry in the sun where the natural sugars in the papyrus act as a glue, binding the strips together. Once dried, the papyrus sheet is polished with a smooth, hard object, such as a shell or a piece of ivory, to create a smooth and even surface for writing. The resulting papyrus was pure white in colour and, if carefully produced, free of spots, stains, and other flaws.

The process of making papyrus rolls Tied papyrus roll (Gardiner sign Y1) or Open papyrus roll (Gardiner sign Y2) (mḏꜢt) involved taking individual sheets of papyrus and joining the longer sides together to create a continuous scroll. While still fresh, they employed a sort of glue to join and reinforce the bond between the sheets. This adhesive substance helped create a stronger and more durable connection between the overlapping papyrus sheets. The process involved beating or tapping the surface to ensure that the sheets were firmly joined. The resulting papyrus sheets serve as the writing material scribes would use reed pens and ink to write on.

The number of sheets on a roll and the size of each sheet were regulated but varied across the kingdom’s different periods. Up to 20 of these sheets were then pasted together to make a roll.

Hieratic script
Hieratic script on papyrus

The combination of glue and the use of mallets played a crucial role in creating a sturdy and well-bonded papyrus sheet. This was especially important for scrolls that needed to withstand handling, rolling, and unrolling without significant wear and tear. The production of papyrus scrolls required a skilled artisan who understood the properties of papyrus and the techniques needed to create a high-quality writing surface. The use of glue and mallets demonstrated the Egyptians’ ingenuity in developing methods to enhance the durability of their writing material.

While the specific details of these techniques might not be fully preserved in historical records, archaeological evidence and studies of ancient papyri have provided insights into the sophisticated methods employed by the Egyptians in crafting their scrolls. These practices contributed to the longevity of many surviving ancient Egyptian papyrus texts. The ink used by ancient Egyptian scribes was typically made from a mixture of water, soot, and gum. The gum served as a binder, and the soot provided the black colour. The Egyptian scribes also used red ink, and had both practical and symbolic uses, appearing in administrative documents as well as in religious and ritual contexts. Scribes used reed pens, which were crafted from the stems of certain plants. The reed was shaped into a pen, and the scribe would dip it into the ink to write on the papyrus.

Papyrus had already begun to be displaced in Europe by the less expensive vellum, or parchment, by the third century, but the use of papyrus for books and papers continued intermittently until the 12th century.