Papyrus, the ancient name for paper, and for the plant which furnished the material from which it was made. The papyrus plant or paper reed belongs to the family of cyperacea or sedges, nearly related to the grasses, and as remarkable for the small number of its useful plants as the grasses are for their many valuable species. The papyrus was named by Linnaeus eyperus papyrus; but later botanists, regarding this and several other species as sufficiently distinct, admit the genus papyrus, and call it P. antiquorum, a name which is generally adopted. It was called papu by the Egyptians, whence the Greek and our paper. Herodotus calls it byblus ( , whence the Greek , book, and our word Bible), and Strabo biblus Meraticus. It grows on the marshy banks of rivers in Abyssinia, Syria, and Sicily, and formerly abounded on the banks of the Nile; but according to Sir Gardner Wilkinson, it has disappeared from Egypt, and some think it never was indigenous there, but was a native of Syria and Abyssinia, and has become extinct from want of culture. It has been seen in modern times in Abyssinia, in the neighborhood of Jaffa, on the banks of the Anapus near Syracuse, and according to some on the borders of Lake Men-zaleh in the delta of the Nile; but the last was probably another species, and it is doubtful if the Sicilian plant is the papyrus anti-quorum, although it closely resembles it. The plant has large and abundant rootstocks, which spread in the mud and throw up numerous stems from 5 to 10 ft. high, the lower portion being submerged; the stem is triangular and smooth; the leaves all spring from near the base, the upper part of the stem being quite naked and bearing its inflorescence at the apex in the form of a large compound umbel; this consists of numerous slender branching peduncles, bearing at their extremities the flowers in small heads or spikes, and forming a graceful drooping tuft, which has at its base an involucre of long narrow leaves; the small flattened spikes consist of six or more glumaceous flowers.
The papyrus is frequently cultivated as a stove plant, both as a curiosity and for its merits as a decorative plant, its tall naked stems, each bearing a delicate waving green umbel at the top, making a well grown specimen a splendid object. Though aquatic, it can be cultivated in pots if freely watered, and may be planted in the open ground in summer if it can have a moist place or sufficient water. Another plant is sometimes found in cultivation as the papyrus, the related eyperus alternifolius; this is smaller in every respect, and its much smaller heads or umbels are coarser and lack the graceful drooping character of those of the papyrus, but it is much more hardy. - The right of growing and selling the papyrus was a government monopoly in Egypt, where its cultivation was restricted to the Sebennytic and Saitic nomes. It was used for a great variety of purposes besides paper. Its graceful plumes crowned the statues of the gods and decorated their temples; its pith was eaten as food; wickerwork boats, boxes, and baskets were woven of its stalk, and of its bark were made sails, cordage, cloth, mats, and sandals for the priests; it was applied as medicine to the cure of fistulas and ulcers; it furnished material for torches and candles, and its roots were used for fuel and manufactured into furniture and household utensils. "Wilkinson thinks however that some species of eyperus, and not the P. antiquorum, was used for many of these grosser purposes.
In making paper the inner cuticle of the stalk was separated into thin laminae by a 'sharp point. The finest were those next to the pith, and the layers, of which there were about 20, decreased in quality as they approached the. outer integument, which was coarse and fit only for making cordage, mats, etc. The slips were laid side by side on a smooth flat surface and covered with a second layer placed at right angles to them, after which they were pressed so as to cause the different laminae to adhere to each other and form a single sheet, which was then dried in the sun. Pliny says the laminae were made adhesive by wetting them with Nile water, to which he ascribes a glutinous quality, but their own sticky sap was sufficient to hold them together. In the Roman times a thin sizing was used for this purpose. The sheets were finally beaten smooth with a mallet and polished with a piece of ivory or a shell. The breadth of the sheet was limited by the length of the papyrus slips, but its length could be extended indefinitely by placing numbers of the laminae beside each other. When finished, the papyrus was rolled upon a wooden cylinder (sea-pus), the ends of which projecting beyond the edges of the sheet were neatly finished and ornamented.
Various qualities of papyrus were manufactured, of which, according to Pliny, the hieratic, 11 digits in width, used for the sacred books, was formerly the best; but under the Roman domination two finer kinds of 13 digits' breadth, the Augustine and Livian, were made. Another quality, the Fan-nian, 10 digits wide, was manufactured from an inferior grade. The Saitic papyrus, made in the nome of that name, was of cheap quality, and the Tanitic was so poor as to be sold by weight. An eighth grade, not more than six fingers wide, was used only for wrapping paper. In the reign of Claudius the papyrus was greatly improved in fineness, strength, and color, by putting a new layer of the best leaves over a sheet of coarser quality. The papyrus rolls taken from the Egyptian tombs differ in size and in quality, being from 4 to 18 in. in breadth, and varying in texture and color from a coarse yellowish brown, in which the fibre is visible, to a fine silky material of smooth surface and light color. In 1753 several hundred papyri were taken from an excavation at Herculaneum, a part of which are Greek and a part Latin manuscripts. The former are from 8 1/2- to 12 1/2 in. in width, and the latter wider.
They are nearly reduced to carbon, and the pages are quite black, the letters being distinguishable only in a favorable light. The utmost care, patience, and ingenuity have been devoted to unrolling and deciphering them, but with results that scarcely repaid the trouble, as no works of any consequence have yet been recovered. Attention was first called to the papyri of Egypt when the history and antiquities of that country were developed by the French expedition. A great number have since been exhumed, and through their decipherment much light has been shed on the history, manners and customs, and literature of Egypt. - Papyrus was used for writing at a very remote period in Egypt, as early probably as the third or fourth dynasty. It was an article of commerce before the time of Herodotus, but it did not come into universal use in Greece before the time of Alexander. Under his successors it was one of the chief articles of Egyptian commerce. The plant was raised also, according to some authorities, in Calabria and Apulia, and in the marshes of the Tiber; but according to others, the Romans only re-manufactured and improved the papyrus imported from Egypt. In the time of the republic great numbers of hieratic papyri which had been written upon were sent from Alexandria to Rome, where they were cleaned and prepared anew for writing.
Under Augustus the trade in both books and papyrus was very large. In the reign of Tiberius the demand often exceeded the supply, and it was necessary to appoint a committee of the senate to regulate its distribution. In the 7th century the conquest of Egypt by the Saracens put an end to the export, and western Europe was obliged to supply its place with parchment and vellum until the introduction of paper, although papyrus was occasionally used for several centuries after. To this general substitution of parchment, and the transferring to it of works written on the perishable papyrus, is due in a great measure the preservation of ancient literature. (See Egypt, Language and Literature of, and Manuscript).