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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Papyrus in Ancient Egypt

A member of the sedge family, the papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) was an integral feature of the ancient Nilotic landscape, essential to the ancient Egyptians in both the practical and symbolic realms. Needing shallow fresh water or water-saturated earth to grow, dense papyrus thickets were found in the marshes of the Nile Delta and also in the low-lying areas fringing the Nile valley. From a horizontal root, the slender but sturdy stalks, topped by feathery umbels ending in small brown fruit-bearing flowers, can reach up to five meters in height (30.4.60).

The pharaonic word for papyrus was tjufy (with mehyt used as a more general term for marsh plants). A hieroglyph in the form of a papyrus plant was used in the writing of the word wadj, meaning fresh, flourishing, and green. An amulet in this shape was worn at the throat for protection and health (26.7.1036). Due to its prevalence in the Nile Delta, the papyrus was the heraldic plant of Lower (northern) Egypt, while the lily or lotus stood for Upper (southern) Egypt. When shown wound around the hieroglyph for “unite,” these two plants formed an emblem for the unification of the Two Lands of Egypt (15.5.1). The goddess Wadjet, depicted as a rearing cobra (07.228.14) or a woman with the head of a lioness (35.9.2), was the tutelary deity of Lower Egypt, and often is shown carrying a papyrus-shaped scepter.

In ancient Egyptian cosmology, the world was created when the first god stood on a mound that emerged from limitless and undifferentiated darkness and water, a mythical echo of the moment each year when the land began to reappear from beneath the annual floodwaters. Papyrus marshes were thus seen as fecund, fertile regions that contained the germs of creation (30.4.136). Ceilings in temples and tombs were frequently supported with columns in the form of papyrus plants, turning their architectural settings into models of this primeval marsh (68.154). Papyrus thickets were seen as liminal zones at the edges of the ordered cosmos, symbols of the untamed chaos that surrounded and perpetually threatened the Egyptian world. Teeming with wild birds and fish as well as dangerous animals such as hippopotami and crocodiles, all seen as incarnations of Egypt’s enemies, these were the setting for ritual hunts. The single-handed defeat of these chaotic creatures by a king or noble, often depicted on the walls of temples and elite tombs, was emblematic of the maintenance of the ordered cosmos against the forces of entropy (30.4.48).

In one of the great mythic cycles central to Egyptian religion, the goddess Isis took her infant son Horus to the papyrus thickets of the north to conceal him from her brother Seth, who had murdered her husband Osiris and usurped his throne. Horus grew to manhood here, hidden among the swaying reeds whose rustling sounds soothed him and masked his cries, until he emerged to defeat his wicked uncle and reclaim his patrimony (50.85). Horus was protected and nursed while a baby by the goddess Hathor, who was worshipped in the ritual of the Shaking of the Papyrus. In its ideal form, this was performed in the marshes by a celebrant who shook actual stalks of papyrus; Hathor’s primary cult instruments, the sistrum (68.44) and the menat (11.215.450), were rattled to produce a comparable rustling sound and evoke this mythical environment. To celebrate her role as wet-nurse of Horus and symbol of rebirth and resurrection in the celestial realm, this goddess is shown in the form of a cow emerging from the papyrus thicket (2007.155). The handles of mirrors, associated with Hathor as the goddess of eroticism and beauty, were often in the form of papyrus plants (26.7.1351).

Papyrus could be used in the manufacture of a variety of objects. Skiffs made by binding the long stalks together were used from the Predynastic era on for local transport and hunting. As shown in tomb art, the boats used for pilgrimages and funerals take this distinctive shape (20.3.5); these may originally have been made from reeds, and were perhaps translated later into wood. For use in the construction of items such as mats, boxes, baskets, lids, sandals, and ropes, the tough outer rind was stripped, revealing a spongy white pith reinforced by long vascular bundles that could be made into durable strips (10.184.1a,b; 09.184.250). According to Herodotus, the lower part of the plant (probably the root) could be roasted and eaten.

Perhaps the most important use for the papyrus plant was as a writing surface, created from strips of the pith found inside the stalk laid down in layers and dried under pressure. This was formed into rolls that could be left intact or cut into sheets; later, codices were also used. Thanks to the preservative qualities afforded by the dry climate of Egypt’s deserts, the remains of many documents on papyrus have been recovered from the Egyptian sands. These include household and administrative documents (22.3.522), letters (22.3.516), contracts (35.4.1a, b) and other legal texts, illustrated narratives, and religious texts (25.3.31; 30.3.31). The earliest known roll of papyrus comes from the Dynasty 1 tomb of the high official Hemaka (ca. 2900 B.C.), but this is blank; the first examples on which text is preserved are administrative documents found at the Red Sea port of Wadi el-Jarf that date to Dynasty 4 (ca. 2500 B.C.). This correlates with the earliest known scribe statue, which dates to the same dynasty.

The typical scribal kit consisted of rush styluses (with reeds coming into use in the late first century B.C.), water, and cakes of ink, with a carbon-based black used for most texts and a red, fabricated with hematite, employed for emphasis (47.123a–g). Various additional colors could be used for illustrations. For most of Egyptian history, the script used on papyrus was hieratic, a cursive script (27.3.560); in later times, demotic, which developed from hieratic, then Greek and Coptic (25.8; 14.1.531), were also used. Scribes, or others among the 0.5 to 3 percent of the population who were literate (23.10.1), would write first on the inner surface of the roll, now known as the recto, where the fibers were horizontal, then move to the verso, the outer surface. Papyri were often erased and reused, and old strips could be layered with plaster as cartonnage, used for items like mummy masks (19.2.6).

Papyrus-making is a complex and time-consuming process that requires expertise in all aspects, from the cultivation and harvesting of plants to the manufacture of rolls. Many scholars believe that this was a state-run enterprise, at least in the later periods of Egyptian history; it has been suggested that the Greek term papuros comes from the Egyptian pa-per-aa, “that of the pharaoh,” although there is no substantial evidence for this. In any event, most likely due to the desire to move away from dependence on supplies from Egypt, parchment gradually superseded papyrus as the most popular material for writing. The latest known papyri date from around 1100 A.D., although even these are isolated examples.