Papyrus Investigation, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, 2009

Papyrus Investigation, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, 2009

I realize this is not the most flattering picture, but I thought it went well as an illustration of one of my smaller investigations.

Papyrus Strips, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, 2009

The actual strips of papyrus that I cut (by drawing the knife along the whole length of the  stem, as the ones where I attempted to ‘unroll’ it were an unsatisfactory mess).


While in Bahir Dar, with access to the plentiful papyrus supplies of Lake Tana, I took the opportunity to do a little bit of experimental investigation into the debate on how papyrus was manufactured. Specifically, I was interested in the practicalities of Hendricks’ reconstruction of the method of papyrus manufacture by means of a ‘peeling’ or unrolling process, working the papyrus from the outside to the inside, all in one piece, which is then flattened in pressing. (see Hendricks, ‘Pliny, Historia Naturalis XIII, 74-82 and the Manufacture of Papyrus’ in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik XXXVII (1980) 121–136). I cut my way through a dozen stalks, and while I very easily got a handle on creating usable segments by means of a kind of shaving/splitting process with the knife, I found that the pith resisted being ‘peeled’ or unrolled in any way, and could not satisfactorily make the turns at the points of the triangular stem. In addition to being difficult, it was extremely slow, and while efficiency is not necessarily a particularly strong argument for reconstructing traditional production practices, I came away from the experiment with a greater appreciation for the feel of papyrus pith and the implications of different methods of cutting it. I am disinclined towards the Hendricks method at present, but see Wallert’s article (Wallert, ‘The Reconstruction of Papyrus Manufacture: A Preliminary Investigation’ in Studies in Conservation, Vol. 34, No. 1, (Feb., 1989), pp. 1-8), suggesting that there may be physical characteristics that can solve the question independent of the opinions of modern scholars engaging in experimental archaeology.