Papyrus is a plant that grows naturally along the Nile River and its tributaries because its roots require soft soil and need to be entirely underwater. During the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians began to cultivate papyrus as well. The outer fibers of this plant provided the ancient Egyptians with the material for mats, baskets and other containers, some furniture and clothing, boats, ropes, sandals, hut walls and roofing, and many other items. Its pith—a soft, spongy substance in the center of its stems—was used to manufacture thin sheets used as a writing surface. For this reason, the word papyrus refers not only to the plant but to the writing material and the ancient manuscripts made from papyrus.
To make papyrus (i.e., the writing material), the Egyptians gathered stems from harvested papyrus plants and cut them into pieces. They then stripped off the outer rind of each stem, separating it from its soft, spongy interior (the pith), and the pith was cut into thick slices. These slices were then laid side by side on a table, first in one layer and then in another that was turned crossways over the first. The two layers were then hammered and pressed until the papyrus was a thin sheet. Sheets were then joined, using an adhesive, to make a roll long enough to hold a desired amount of text, and trimmed along the edges to make them even. This manufacturing process was controlled by the government, which is probably why the Greeks first coined the word papyrus, meaning “royal,” for the resulting paper.
Archaeologists have found rolls of papyrus dozens of feet long; however, the standard roll had only twenty joined sheets. In addition, while sheets were made in varying sizes, depending on the length of the cut papyrus that went into Page 228 | Top of Articletheir manufacture, the average sheet was roughly twelve inches by five inches. Both sides of a sheet could be written on, but because the papyrus was always rolled up, writers used first the inside of the roll, or recto, and then the outside of the roll, or verso. In addition to its role as a writing medium, the papyrus plant was featured in many myths, said to have grown from a mound of soil that arose from the primordial waters at the time of Creation. This plant was also associated with fertility, the Nile River, and youth. Several gods and goddesses, including Horus, Hathor, and Bastet, were sometimes shown holding or wearing a papyrus plant or a scepter shaped like a papyrus.