Person in a fuschia top holds a stalk of papyrus with the left hand while cutting with the right.

Harvesting papyrus at the Getty Villa.

Making paper from papyrus today gives us a way of understanding the ancient world, said Chelsea Hogan, a Getty public programs specialist. She was preparing the plant for an upcoming workshop on the topic. She had chosen several tall stalks from the Getty Villa gardens and was now slicing them into thin flat reeds to be soaked, and ultimately pounded, and pressed into paper.

“When you learn how labor-intensive this is, you appreciate it more,” said Hogan. “This allows you to slow down and think about the evolution from nature to the thing that ancient Romans would write on.”

Papyrus grew on the banks of the Nile, and the resulting paper was exported across ancient Egypt, all the way into ancient Rome.

“Most scholars agree the manufacturing of papyrus was a technology belonging to the ancient Egyptians,” said Robyn Price, a PhD candidate in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, who helped facilitate the Getty workshop. “This would suggest that when Egypt was under Roman control, the Egyptians were supplying the entire Roman empire with these goods.”

Eventually, papyrus was replaced by parchment (animal skin), but the ancient process was reinvented in the 1960s for the tourist trade in Egypt.

“I’m hesitant to suggest that no one else ever used this technology throughout the Roman Empire,” said Price. “There’s the account by Pliny the Elder in his Natural Histories, but it’s a rather vague account.” Additionally, he never actually went to Egypt.

After the papyrus paper was produced, pieces were attached to create scrolls, up to sixty-five feet long. Scribes wrote horizontally, as we do, in sections the size of our modern pages, rolled the scrolls up, and stored them in libraries. Papyrus paper wasn’t cheap, and not everyone could read and write.

Like today, the people who lived long ago were continually developing technologies and tools. “We have a lot to learn from them,” said Price. “Working with papyrus today is exciting because we’re reinventing a technology the ancient Egyptians were experts in. It offers us the opportunity to learn from them and reminds us that our notion of ‘progress’ is subjective.”

A child uses a wooden mallet to pound strips of papyrus laid out on a wooden block.

Pounding the strips to make paper.

Here’s what we learned about how to make papyrus:

Step 1: Harvest the papyrus

The plant can grow over ten feet tall and thrived on the banks of Egypt’s Nile River. At the Getty Villa, it is grown in the garden and is harvested to give visitors a sense of how the plant is transformed into paper. The ancient Villa dei Papiri, on which the Getty Villa is based wouldn’t have been harvesting its own papyrus. Back then, the paper would have been shipped from Egypt, traveling out of Alexandria Egypt, along the Levantine coast and over to Rome.

Step 2: Cut the stalks into thin strips

This is a time-consuming process that involves a sharp knife. You slice the stalks into a handful of strips to lay across each other, forming a sheet of paper.

hands holding papyrus stalks

Papyrus stalks ready to be soaked.

Step 3: Press and soak the stalks

The stalks are gently pressed or rolled and then soaked in water for at least a day.

Step 4: Gently pound the papyrus stalks

When the stalks are ready, they are taken from the water, laid across one another, and pounded into strips. According to Hogan, this is everyone’s favorite part. But you don’t have to take your aggression out on the paper. A gentle pounding will do just fine.

Step 5: Soak, press, and burnish the sheets of paper.

This is also time-consuming. The paper would likely be soaked for about three days, then pressed for three days and burnished with a smooth stone before being written on.

Papyrus paper on a wooden block next to raw papyrus stalks and a wooden mallet

A child seals a rolled papyrus with wax.
A young child presses a wax seal to paper

Step 6: Write your philosophical text, roll it up, and seal it for the library

The Getty Villa was modeled on the Ancient Villa dei Papiri, so named because of its library filled with scrolls.

When Mt. Vesuvius erupted, different types of volcanic material descended on the nearby towns. Pyroclastic flow, a mixture of hot gasses and ash, sealed and preserved the town of Herculaneum, including the Villa dei Papiri and its library.

Many of the scrolls in the library survived, carbonized by the heat. Only some of the blackened texts have been read. Yet they offer a glimpse into the thinking of the time. Now, new digital techniques provide the possibility of reading the scrolls without harming them.

According to Price, it is exciting that we may be able to use new technology to find examples of lost texts that are referenced throughout classical literature:

Many of the scrolls that have been read are philosophy texts that we are familiar with from other sources. What is exciting though, with all the new technology being used to try to read these scrolls, is the possibility that we will find examples of all those many lost texts referenced throughout classical literature, like Socrates’ lost plays or Manetho, from whom we have our modern conception of Ancient Egyptian chronology but which has only been reconstructed through excerpts of his work quoted in other texts.

You can imagine the issues with that method if you think about how difficult the game of ‘telephone’ is.

Find out more about making papyrus at the Getty Villa and Getty’s other family programs here.

What do you want to know about the ancient world? Ask your question in the comments below and we’ll do our best to get the answer!