Papyrus; from plant to art

Have you ever wondered how the ancient Egyptians made papyrus paper to use in their scrolls and art?

Well I have and to my delight I was able to attend a workshop on how to actually make the elusive paper, just before all the Covid19 madness happened back in March. A friend of mine invited me to go along to the old Getty Villa in Malibu for this workshop and I accepted immediately.

So there we where and surely they had displayed the whole process right in front of us and then we where able to see how it is done and even try our luck in making it ourselves. Believe me, it is a lot harder than it sounds and a LOT of hard work. No wonder they had scores of slaves to do the labor and only the rich and noble could effort to use the paper for writing and art.

Basically you have to cut the plant and strip the outer layer off, to get to the usable part on the inside. Then you have to cut it into strips and soak it for quite some time, to soften the fibers and make them pliable. Next you arrange two layers of strips like a weave and either with a flat hammer or a rolling pin you start hitting, or rolling, applying pressure to the layers. The tricky part is not to do it so strong that you damage the fibers and split them, but just the right amount to start breaking them down to release the juice and ligament in the plant that will bind the layers as you flatten them slowly.

Most people hammered the hell out of the poor samples we where given and split the plants into mush, which is exactly NOT what to do. But me and my friend found that sweet spot, with some guidance from the team instructors and were at it for some time. Unfortunately, we where also told that this process usually takes weeks and we had only a few minutes, so, oh well, at least we understood the theory.

After that, once you have hammered it flat and it starts to bind, it is put between two layers of linen and a hard flat surface, like wood or stone to dry and flatten some more. This also takes days and the pieces have to be turned and put in dry linen every day, till they are dry. Then they are sanded slightly to get that really flat surface. If you want a long scroll, you also start attaching several of those single pieces in the drying process so they can bind together and dry as one. It is quite the process.

Lucky for us they had some pieces ready for us to either write on it or paint on it. I used mine for a call of the Witches poem and then you could seal it with a real wax seal. All in all it was amazing to see and imagine it to be done and you really appreciate the paper so much more when you understand all the work that went into it. It is a piece of art in itself really.

Now imagine after all that you have a scroll to use for recording events or drawing, I am sure they had a good dose of respect for each piece of finished papyrus and used the paper wisely. That makes the ancient scrolls even more amazing and precious. No wonder I was always intrigued and awed by them. They are beautiful and delicate.

In the end we had a great time at the workshop and after that we where able to spend time roaming around the rest of the villa and enjoy some great art and sunny gardens.

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