Polishing Papyrus

Every writer should know something about papyrus, even though this material is no longer used for writing. The use of papyrus for recording purposes came along after cave paintings and clay tablets. Around 3000 BC, Egyptians moved out of the prehistoric Stone Age after developing a written language, and they invented papyrus to transcribe their knowledge because it was easier to use than stone.  The Egyptians revolutionized the literary world with this new flexible writing material that they developed.  Papyrus was able to accept and retain ink without incurring blurs or smudges, and it remained in use for longer than any other material in the history of written documents.  The papyrus plant, was used for thousands of years, to write many things.  Papyrus changed history because it was light, strong, thin, durable and easy to carry, and it was the best thing around for writing.  One of Egypt’s greatest accomplishments and one of the greatest inventions in the ancient world was turning papyrus into a material that was useful for writing.

Papyrus plants consume great quantities of water and they need fresh water or water-saturated earth to grow, and this condition was found in the marshes of the Nile Delta.  Water and nutrients are carried from the roots, up to the stalk and then to the wide flower head, feathery umbels ending in small brown fruit-bearing flowers.  The tough green rind of the papyrus stalk encloses the white pith, from which the papyrus sheet is made.  Papyrus is harvested, then outer fibers or stems of papyrus reeds are peeled away from the core.  The thread-like insides were sliced into thin broad strips which were then soaked in water.  After soaking, the strips were laid lengthwise in a thin layer, with another layer placed crosswise on top.  The layers would be hammered and pressed together under a heavy weight until the sticky juice glued the strips together.  As the papyrus was pounded the water was drained out.  This raw papyrus sheet was pounded again, and weighted down to make a flat, uniform sheet.  It took about 3 to 4 days for the papyrus to dry.  After drying the surface of the sheet needed to be polished to a smooth finish by rubbing in order to remove any ridges.  A stone, or a shell, or a piece of ivory was used to rub the surface of the papyrus paper until it was smooth.  The quality of the final product varied considerably according to the kind of strips that were used and the care taken in making the layers and how much effort was spent on the polish treatment.

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