Image of the Papyrus plant
Behind the scenes Collections Series Short read

Materials of the Book – Papyrus

The famous writing material of Ancient Egypt, enduring and iconic

Papyrus was made as far back as the fourth millennium BCE, using the pith of the plant, Cyperus Papyrus. Due to the plant’s abundance across the Nile Delta, it was the principal writing material in ancient Egypt.

Cyperus papyrus, Credit: PJT56 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The green outer rind was removed, and the stems cut into longitudinal strips and soaked in water. These were arranged in parallel rows with edges overlapping. Then a second layer was laid over this, perpendicular to the first. The layers were either pressed or beaten together, then dried, resulting in a laminated sheet. The adhesion of the strips is facilitated by the plant’s sap, and the application of pressure which fuses the cellulose in each layer together.

Traditionally, multiple sheets of papyrus were joined to form scrolls using a starch-based paste. The papyrus surface was prepared for writing using a coating made of egg, gum, and milk.

When parchment was introduced, in the first centuries BCE and CE, folding sheets to form book sections was also quickly adopted for papyrus. It became common to cut sheets from papyrus rolls to form codices.

Page of papyrus with sewing remnants in the centre where it was folded
Greek P 28, a papyrus codex from the John Rylands. Remnant of thread visible in the red circle

Papyrus was used for a variety of documents: administrative records, letters as well as didactic, literary, and medical texts.

The Rylands Papyri collection held by the John Rylands University Library, is one of the most extensive and wide-ranging papyrus manuscript collections in the United Kingdom.

The Library’s most famous artefact: Greek P 457, also known as the St John’s fragment, is the earliest known fragment of the New Testament.

The fragment is from a papyrus codex. It is very small but contains the beginning of seven lines from John 18:31-33 on one side and the end of seven lines from John 18:37-38 on the other.

To learn more about this unique artefact and read about the use of Multispectral Imaging software on the fragment follow these links:

To visualize images of the codex Greek Papyrus 28 and explore its content:

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