Ancient Writing Materials:
Papyrus, Vellum, and How the Ancient Texts Survived Trexler Library | Muhlenberg College

The Oxyrhynchus papyri survived by being buried in nearly water-free and oxygen-free conditions for hundreds of years.  But what is papyrus?

papyrus plant
Fig. 6. Pingstingish, Adrian. Kew gardens papyrus plant. 13 October 2008.

Papyrus is a natural product, a paper-like material made from the pith of the papyrus plant cyperus papyrus.  The pith is spongy material at the center of the stem.  Papyrus pith is laid parallel in long strips, and then more long strips are laid at right angles.  Soaked in water to increased adhesions, the strips are pounded together, dried under pressure, and finished or polished with a round piece of wood, stone, or shell.  The strips are not woven together; all the horizontal strips are one side (the “recto” or right side) and the vertical strips are on the other side (or verso).  In a dry climate papyrus is reasonably rot-resistant, but in humid or damp climates it is subject to mold and other decay.  Most papyrus was rolled into scrolls, sheet joined to sheet, to form a smooth, continuous, and long-lasting writing surface; short documents were written on individual sheets.

“Papyrus” is the etymological parent of the English word “paper.”  A second Greek word for papyrus is biblos, often said to refer to the Phoenician town of Byblos where the Greeks originally obtained their paper –hence biblos is by extension the Greek word for book (and one ancestor of the English word bibliography).

In the Roman and late ancient eras the papyrus scroll began to be supplemented –and then replaced—by the codex or book.  Papyri 851, 870, 1095, and 1227 (the last from a Christian Gospel) are from leaves of codices or books, even though papyrus does not fold particularly well –its creases are apt to break.

Since papyrus does not fold well, the folded leaves of parchment rivaled the papyrus scroll for usefulness.  Parchment is animal skin of calf, sheep, or goat which has been stretched, scraped of hair, dried under tension, and finished to form a stable writing surface that can be folded.  Finer grades of parchment are called vellum.  Parchment is very susceptible to changes in humidity, but can be very long-lasting under stable conditions.

All the Muhlenberg papyri are truly written on papyrus except for three: 872, 1077, and 1094872 is a few words in Latin on vellum, and 1094 is a vellum leaf of a codex.  1077 is a rare find: thin strips of vellum folded to make an amulet for healing, inscribed with words from the Christian Gospel of Matthew.  The need to fold this charm undoubtedly dictated why it was made of vellum, and not less foldable papyrus.

parchment from goat
Fig. 7. Maňas, Michal. Parchment from goatskin. 13 October 2008.


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