Pounding Papyrus: How Ancient Egyptians Made the World's First Paper
AbstractIt's hard to imagine a world without paper. You wouldn't have things like books, cards, comics, newspaper, construction paper, notebooks, cereal boxes, or that nice sound of shredding wrapping paper on your birthday. There was a time, though, when the only thing people had to write on were slabs of soft, squishy clay. When these slabs dried in the sun, they preserved simple ideas, but they were heavy, like carrying around a load of rocks. Not exactly easy to put in your pocket and carry around. Fortunately, some clever people discovered that a plant could help them out, and in this science fair project, you'll recreate the steps they used to make the world's first paper, and test its strength against that of modern paper that you use every day.
Kristin Strong, Science Buddies
Edited by Peter Boretsky, Lockheed Martin
The Pounding Papyrus: How Egyptians Made the World's First Paper Project Idea is dedicated to the memory of Linda Hess Nelson and her creativity in paper-making and paper arts.
To make a sheet of papyrus paper, and to compare its tensile strength to that of common pulp paper.
Figure 1. This photo shows the tall, triangular reed, called Cyperus papyrus, which the ancient Egyptians used to make all sorts of things for their homes, including paper. (Wikimedia Commons, 2005.)
Over 5,000 years ago, on the banks of the river Nile, a tall plant was growing that would change the world forever. The ancient Egyptians discovered that this triangular reed, called Cyperus papyrus, was light and strong and could be made into all sorts of housewares—from sandals, eating utensils, blankets, and baskets to mattresses, mats, boxes, ropes, and ties for building furniture. The plant could even be used as a food, a medicine, and a perfume—it was like a magic material! The most important thing that the Egyptians discovered, though, was that Cyperus papyrus could be used to make the world's first paper, called papyrus. Our word paper comes from the word papyrus.
Prior to the discovery of paper, people kept records by scratching pictures and numbers into slabs of wet clay, called cuneiform tablets (pronounced kyoo-NEE-uh-form), to keep track of accounts, and then drying the tablets in the sun. Although this made a long-lasting record, it was not very easy to carry around, and was not readily available to everyone.
With the discovery of papyrus paper, many people now had a portable way to pass along information reliably into the future. Laws, sales, orders, and taxes could be tracked. Writing began to develop into more than just pictures—symbols for the sounds of spoken language were created. People could finally record their stories, religion, ideas, and music. All aspects of civilization could be developed and each generation could benefit from the experiences of past generations, without having to rediscover ideas and inventions from scratch. It was no longer necessary to "reinvent the wheel" every few decades.
Papyrus paper is made by:
- Cutting down stalks of the plant Cyperus papyrus.
- Peeling away the outer green fibers.
- Slicing the core fibers into thin strips that are as broad as possible. (Strips from the yellow-white center pith are the best quality.)
- Soaking the strips in water for several days and periodically rolling them out.
- Draining off the water and pounding or rolling the strips, so that they are as thin as possible.
- Creating a first layer of paper by laying some of the strips side by side and overlapping them slightly.
- Making a second layer on top of the first by laying more strips at right angles to the first layer.
- Placing the sheet between two cloths to make a sandwich.
- Placing the sandwich under heavy weights, a C-clamp, or a press for several days until it is dry.
- Rubbing the sheet smooth with a stone.
The first image shows stalks of the plant Cyperus papyrus cut to even lengths and stripped of outer green fibers. The second image shows a papyrus stalk being flattened by a roller. The third image has flattened papyrus stalks arranged to make a sheet. The fourth image shows two sheets of papyrus stalks overlaid perpendicularly to each other. The final image shows two wooden boards clamped together with a large pile of textbooks stacked on top.
Figure 2. This photo shows some of the steps in making papyrus paper, which include soaking, rolling, creating a first layer, creating a second layer, and pressing the layers beneath heavy weights or with a clamp.
Although creating paper from papyrus was laborious and time-consuming, it continued to be an important activity within Egypt until the 11th century AD, when it was replaced by a new type of paper—pulp paper. Pulp paper was created by the Chinese around 150 BC and turned into an industry in 104 AD. This new paper was easier to make and less expensive, too. The inner bark of mulberry and bamboo fibers were mixed together with water, and the mixture was poured onto a sheet of woven cloth, allowing the water to drain through and leaving the fibers behind on the cloth. Once the fibers dried in the sun, the paper was ready to use. The modern paper that you use today is created by a process descended from this method. The insides of trees are broken down, either chemically or mechanically, into a pulp, which is a mushy, watery solution of individual wood fibers. These fibers are then sprayed onto a wire mesh and pressed under rollers, steamed, and dried.
In this science fair project, you will compare the tensile strength of papyrus paper against the tensile strength of paper made in the ancient Chinese, or modern, ways. Tensile strength is a measure of how strong something is when you pull on each end of it. For example, if you take a single strand of hair or a piece of thread several inches long and pull on each end, you will create a tensile force, and you might be able to break the hair or thread. To do testing in this science fair project, you'll compare strips of different types of paper by seeing how much weight can hang from each one before the papers tear.
So, which paper do you think will win the gold medal for tensile strength? The ancient one made by hand, or the modern one made with steamrollers?
Terms and Concepts
- Cuneiform tablet
- Pulp paper
- Tensile strength
- Tensile force
- Stress riser
- What are some of the ways ancient Egyptians used the Cyperus papyrus plant?
- What did people do before paper was invented?
- How is papyrus paper made?
- How is ancient Chinese paper made?
- How is modern paper made?
- How do you create a tensile force?
This source describes the history of papyrus:
- Dunn, J. (2005). Historical Papyrus. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
This source describes the history of paper-making:
- Carr, K. (2009). History of Paper. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
These sources describe how to make papyrus paper:
Materials and Equipment
You will need to choose two test papers:
One test paper will be papyrus paper that is either:
- Bought online from a source such as www.rainbowresource.com, Item # 032265, or
- Made at home (in 1–2 weeks) from strips of papyrus that have been bought online from a source such as www.rainbowresource.com, Item # 032265 or Item # 032264.
If you choose to make your own papyrus paper, you will need:
- Plastic bin, like a kitty litter tray
- Rolling pin
- Optional: Soft-face hammer
- Large clear plastic bag
- Heavy books (many) or C-clamps (4)
- Cutting board (at least 1)
- Thin cotton cloths, as big or bigger than a sheet of paper (2)
The other test paper will be pulp paper that is either:
- Homemade (see the Bibliography for materials and instructions), or
- Everyday, modern 8.5 x 11" white sheet paper from a store
- Business-size envelopes, with a triangular flap (6)
- Packaging tape
- Quarters (5 rolls)
- Lab notebook
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Preparing Your Papyrus Paper
If you decide to make the papyrus paper at home, remember that it can take up to two weeks to create a sheet of paper:
- Ask your parents where you can safely construct the paper without damaging any floors or surfaces with water.
- Follow the instructions that come with your papyrus paper-making kit, or the instructions in the Bibliography. While the kit describes rolling the strips with a rolling pin, you may wish to combine rolling with gentle hammering, as some sources indicate in the Bibliography.
- When rolling and/or hammering, place the strips inside a clear plastic bag to avoid being sprayed by the bath water in which the strips have been soaking.
If you decide to buy ready-made papyrus paper, there is no preparation required, and you can move on to the next section.
Preparing Your Pulp Paper
If you decide to make your own pulp paper at home, remember that it can take several days to create a sheet of paper:
- Ask your parents where you can safely construct the paper without damaging any floors or surfaces with water.
- Follow the instructions in the Bibliography for making pulp paper at home.
Examining Your Papers
- Look at the papyrus paper and the pulp paper, and take notes in your lab notebook about any differences you observe.
Preparing Your Test Strips
Notes: To make sure the test strips tear across the middle, and not at their ends where the tensile force is applied, you'll introduce a stress riser (a cut) into the middle of the paper. This is a place where stress concentrates and cracks or tears can grow. It's a bit like the special notch on a package of chips or candy. This stress riser allows you to more easily rip open the bag. Here, the stress riser will allow you to more easily tear the paper.
- Cut three strips of pulp paper, each 1 in. x 4 in. in size.
- Measure 2 in. (halfway) down the length of each strip and cut it three-quarters of the way across.
- Repeat steps 1–2 for the papyrus paper.
Preparing Your Test Instruments
Figure 3. This photo shows where to add packaging tape to the width of the envelope, how to attach the test strip to the envelope flap, and how to hold the strip for testing.
- Open the flap on one envelope so that it is sticking up.
Measure out a strip of packaging tape several inches long. Write down your measurement in your lab notebook, so that you can use this same length of tape for preparing other envelopes. Wrap the strip of packaging tape loosely around the width of the envelope and the flap, starting about 2.5 in. from an envelope corner. See Figure 3.
- The flap should still be sticking up.
- This strip of tape helps strengthen the envelope and allows it to better hold the quarters.
- Repeat steps 1–2 five more times, so that you have a total of six prepared envelopes.
Testing Your Paper Strips
- Hold up a test strip of pulp paper to the tip of one of the envelope flaps.
- Place one corner of the test strip on the tip of the flap at about a 45-degree angle so that it is just covering the sticky part of the envelope flap.
- Tape the test strip, front and back, to the tip of the envelope.
- Hold the test strip by its free end with the open envelope dangling down below.
- Add quarters, one by one, to the envelope, in the pocket near where the packaging tape goes around the width of the envelope.
- Continue adding quarters until the test strip fails (tears) in half.
- Count up the number of quarters that caused the strip to fail, and enter your count in a data table in your lab notebook.
Examine the test strip and write down your observations about how it failed:
- Where the tear occurred.
- The appearance of the tear—its direction and length.
- Repeat steps 1–8 two more times, using the remaining two strips of pulp paper, and two fresh test envelopes, so that you have a total of three trials. Repeating the experiment will ensure that your results are accurate and repeatable.
- Repeat steps 1–9 three times for the papyrus paper test strips.
Analyzing Your Results
- For each type of paper, average the coin counts for the three trials.
- Make a bar chart showing the paper type on the x-axis and the average coin count to cause tensile failure on the y-axis.
- Which type of paper performed the best in the tensile strength testing (which one could support the most quarters)? Can you explain this result, based on the appearance of the paper or its tear?
Ask an Expert
- Investigate how tensile strength changes with the length of the test strip.
- Investigate how tensile strength changes with dampness.
- Investigate different methods of making papyrus to see if one produces stronger paper than another.
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