Ancient Egyptian Papyrus – An Introduction for KS2
Updated: Feb 3
Papyrus is the name for Egyptian paper, right?
Yes. Though its name actually comes from the plant that the paper was made from, the papyrus plant. The ancient Ancient Egyptians used the plant to make paper and loads of other items. It worked so well that even the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans used papyrus paper too!
A plant, eh? Like the ones my dad has in pots around the house?
Papyrus is more like if the grass in your garden got watered with radioactive matter and it caused it to mutate, turning it giant and causing it to sprout extra bonus grassy bits from the end of each grass blade! The papyrus stems could grow up to 5m high (that’s about the same height as if you stood on top of your dad’s shoulders and then you both stood on top of my dad’s shoulders!) and being an aquatic plant, it only grows in water.
Cool! And it was used to make stuff other than paper too?
Oh yes, the Egyptians relied heavily on the papyrus plant for many parts of their lives. They used it to make many things, including rope, mats, window blinds, sandals, boats (both the sails for the boat and the hull of the boat itself), clothes, toys, boxes and baskets. They even ate it!
So, they had a lot of papyrus plants then?
Yes, the plant originally grew along the shores of the River Nile, mostly in the Nile Delta. There were loads of papyrus plants and the Egyptians started using them. A lot! Soon the demand was so high that they had to start farming it.
It has a pretty fun name, is that an Egyptian word?
No, the word “papyrus” is the Greek name for the plant. Though our word for “paper” comes from the word “papyrus” originally. The Egyptians would have called the plant “djet” (though it was also sometimes called “wadj”). And the paper made from the plant would have likely been called “djema”.
How exactly do you make paper from the papyrus plant then?
I’m glad you asked, here’s a step-by-step guide for you:
Use a sharp blade to chop down the papyrus plant, chopping at the base of the plant.
Slice up the stalk of the plant and cut out the fibrous parts from the inside, called the pith.
Beat the pith with a hammer to make thin strips or “wafers”.
Place a number of these thin papyrus strips side by side vertically.
Wet these strips with a solution of resin from the plant.
Place another set of thin papyrus strips side by side on top. But this time, place them horizontally across all of the strips in the first layer.
Press or hammer the two layers together and leave to dry in the sun. The wet strips and resin form a type of glue that sticks both layers together.
If you want a longer roll of papyrus, you can use a similar technique to that described above to stick two pieces of papyrus paper together at the edges.
Now you have a roll of papyrus paper to start writing on!
How does a person go about using papyrus paper though? Does it work the same as regular paper?
Pretty much, but the pieces of paper could be any size. Sometimes they were just little scraps of paper, sometimes they were made into books and other times they were made into long scrolls that were rolled up. The famous Ebers Papyrus scroll is an enormous 20 metres long (that’s longer than 10 dads stood on each other’s shoulders! What an amazing party trick!).
The paper was very expensive to make so Egyptian scribes would spend years practising their writing on bits of wood and chunks of stone before they were allowed to write on papyrus paper.
How would the Egyptian scribes actually write on it?
Egyptian scribes used black or red paint mixed with water to make ink. They would apply this ink to the paper using a pen made from a reed from a plant that was sharpened to a very fine point.
The scribes were very particular about which side of the paper should be written on. They would always start with the side of the paper that had the papyrus plant strips lying horizontally, called the recto side. Then if they needed to, they would flip it over and write on the side with the strips lying vertically, called the verso side.
Above, you can spot our replica Papyrus Scroll alongside the other Egyptian replica artefacts we feature as part of our Ancient Egypt: A Time Travel Tour workshop for Primary School children. Our interactive school workshops use drama activities, roleplay and storytelling to bring history to life for your students. Invite us to your school by enquiring here!