Tag Archives: papyrus

Paper or parchment?

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II—’the Wonder of the World’ as his pals liked to call him

The invention of papermaking slowly—like a thousand years slowly—made its way to the Middle East and then Europe. In Spain and Italy, mills began cranking out paper in the 1100s. This paper was for writing on (of course, right? Printing wasn’t a thing yet).

Paper was considered not as good as parchment. There’s a sacred aspect to parchment. Parchment had been the preferred writing surface for religious and legal documents since the days when it replaced papyrus. Still, paper was less expensive than parchment, so customers started making the switch to paper.

The land-owning barons and earls who sold livestock to make parchment saw the new paper industry cutting in on their profits, so they sandbagged the demand for paper. In 1221 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II decreed that paper documents were invalid—which meant contracts written on paper weren’t legally binding. Lawyers, judges and government officials had to use the more expensive parchment just to keep their documents valid. It’s a sad fact that big business will always enlist cronies in government to squash their competition. Always.

http://www.holyromanempireassociation.com/holy-roman-emperor-frederick-ii.html
https://beyondforeignness.org/8966
https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/kings-queens/emperor-frankenstein-the-truth-behind-frederick-ii-of-sicilys-sadistic-science-experiments/

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Deckle and mold

The Chinese papermakers made wooden frames and stretched a mesh/screen across them—they were 2-piece flat strainers called a deckle and mold. Think of two screen windows—one has a screen in it, the other is an empty frame. They dipped the deckle and mold into the slurry and pulled them up horizontally. The water drained through the mesh. They removed the mold to leave a square of slurry on top of the mesh, which got transferred onto a piece of felt. Multiple pieces of felt and slurry were stacked together as a post and pressed to dry flat. When the whole post was finally dry, the slurry was paper that they could pull off the felt.



The Chinese papermakers improved on the recipe by adding bleach to brighten the paper’s appearance and finishing the paper’s surface with sizing (starch at first, then in the 1400s they switched to animal glue) to make it smoother.

https://www.learnchinesehistory.com/history-chinese-paper/
https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/ancient-china/chinese-paper-making/
Hey, look! Georgia Tech has a Museum of Papermaking:
https://paper.gatech.edu/invention-paper-0
Watch a deckle and mold being made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_A9D1IPRqw
I’ve long wondered where bleach came from. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tKJCWJ-ibfI
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sizing

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PAPER!

Great galloping Agamemnon, we forgot paper! Why didn’t you guys say something?

Those monks hand-wrote their bibles on parchment or vellum, remember? Parchment isn’t cheap. It was Gutenberg’s mission to make bibles affordable, so most of them he printed on paper (just a few he printed on vellum) because paper was way less expensive.

Bamboo

Paper was another one of those Chinese inventions that came to the West along the Silk Road. They started making it around ad 100 (a guy named Ts’ai Lun is credited with paper’s invention). China’s first paper was made from bamboo, which is a reed—like papyrus in Egypt. Just like the Egyptians, they soaked the bamboo after splitting it into strips, then criss-crossed the softened strips into a sheet, pressed and dried it.



This kind of paper is not so good for printing. A printing surface needs to be perfectly smooth, and papyrus-style has ridges from the reed’s strips. To make high-quality paper—the good stuff—takes more work. Chinese papermakers figured out that you can soak the bamboo and other fibrous plants like flax in a vat of water and alkalei to break down their fibers more quickly. Alkalei is an acid you get from wood ash. They also beat the soaking bamboo (maybe like churning butter?) until the whole mess disintegrated into a slurry of plant fibers and water.

https://www.thespruce.com/meaning-of-lucky-bamboo-1902901

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Iron gall ink

Hatched gall wasp leaving its nut

The ink the Egyptians used was great for papyrus. Not as good for parchment. Writing on parchment calls for a different kind of ink. This new ink needs acid that will bite into the surface while staying nice and black. Not a whole lot of acid—just enough so the ink interacts with the surface of the parchment.

Where do you find acid? Somehow, somebody observed that when wasps lay their eggs on the tree bark, the eggs irritate the tree which reacts by growing a round gall-nut around the eggs to isolate them. If I were a tree I’d do the same thing myself. After the eggs hatch the baby wasps leave behind gall—a bitter, caustic chemical. Ink-makers collected those gall-nuts to make a slightly acidic ink. To get the gall out of the gall-nuts, they steeped them in water for a week.

https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/oak/oak-apple-gall-info.htm
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39Fdxx_J3K8
https://earthstar.blog/2018/04/14/andricus-kollari-maybe/180414-andricus-kollari-1/

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Making parchment

Soaking a hide in water and lime.

I’m a big old animal lover, so I won’t go too deep into the details of how parchment is made. It’s roughly the same process as making leather, with lots of soaking and stretching and scraping. You soak an animal skin in water, then water and lime (to get the fur off), for a week or two; stretch it on a frame; scrape it smooth with a knife; and dry it.

The result is a smooth, thin, durable (it lasts for centuries) material that is a treat to write on. Vellum is just thick enough that if you make a goof, you can scrape off the dried ink with a sharp blade and write over it (look at mediæval pictures of scribes at work—they hold both a pen and a small knife). If you want to make your own parchment, Lisa Parris gives you the recipe here. ourpastimes.com/make-vellum-4814566.html As Western Civ Irregular and animal-lover Heidi K points out, it’s worth noting that parchment makers were being respectful of the animal by using every bit of it.

This is kind of fanciful. In reality he’d work on one page at a time, not the whole scroll.

If you like cute baby calves and live in the country (in northeastern USA), maybe you’d like to foster this adorable guy. He’s not available for making parchment out of! https://www.facebook.com/SperanzaAnimalRescue/photos/pcb.3693007027481424/3693006924148101/

https://www.britannica.com/topic/parchment
http://www.edenworkshops.com/Vellum_&_Parchment.html
http://www.historyofpaper.net/paper-history/history-of-parchment/
https://www.abaa.org/blog/post/the-history-of-vellum-and-parchment
https://blog.artweb.com/how-to/vellum/
Here’s where to buy ethically-sourced vellum:
https://www.williamcowley.co.uk/
Skip ahead to 5:30 to see this guy writing on parchment—
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwVeMVr9s14
https://www.grammarly.com/blog/calves-calfs/

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Ink

Okay, we got the paper, we got the pens and brushes—now we need the medium: ink.

Medium (singular), media (plural) are Latin words.

Medium is the word we artists use when we talk about the substance used to make marks—ink, paint, crayon, pencil, pastel, chalk. Every medium needs 2 parts: pigment and binder. The pigment is the color. You get pigment from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. The binder is what holds the pigment together and makes it stick to a surface like paper. Liquid medium needs a third part: solvent.



To get black pigment, the Egyptians used the same stuff they did in pre-historic times: burned bones. When bones burn they turn black and brittle. The scribes ground them into a powder. You can use charcoal from wood, too.

This is a stone mortar and pestle—the tools you use to grind something into a powder.

To hold the powder together, they used the sap from the acacia tree. It’s called Gum Arabic and is still used in watercolor today. Gum Arabic is water-soluble. The Egyptian scribes would dry out the gum, grind it into a powder, mix it with burnt-bone powder and add water. They might add very little water to make a thick paste which they could form into a cake.

The round shapes at the top of this scribe’s kit are ink-cakes.

After the cake dried, a scribe could carry it around with him and reactivate the ink by adding a bit of water with his brush. Water is the solvent. If you’ve painted with a box of pan watercolors you understand what I mean. The scribe wrote on the papyrus with brush or pen and when the ink dried the pigment stayed there for thousands of years.

A set of pan watercolors

When they’re exposed to water and air, metals oxidize or corrode. As they do, they produce a colored outer layer. The Egyptians got red pigment by scraping the rust from iron. They got green or blue by scraping the corrosion off of copper.

http://www.teachinghistory100.org/objects/about_the_object/ancient_egyptian_writing_equipment
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_arabic
https://www.zmescience.com/science/copper-traces-egypt-inks/
The egyptologist in this article says ‘infers’ but he means ‘implies:’
https://phys.org/news/2020-10-red-black-ink-egyptian-papyri.html
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/medium?src=search-dict-box
This book is a must-read if you’re interested in color:
https://www.amazon.com/Color-Natural-History-Victoria-Finlay/dp/0812971426/ref=sr_1_5?dchild=1&keywords=color&qid=1604924820&s=books&sr=1-5
https://www.dickblick.com/products/crayola-washable-watercolor-pan-sets/

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Papyrus brushes

Not only can you make paper and pens from the papyrus reed, you can make brushes, too! It’s like those Egyptians never needed to go to the art supply store. They just waded into the Nile and grabbed a reed.

As I understand it, you chew on the end of a thin reed until the pith is soft enough to be flexible and absorb ink. You can trim it with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to get a point.



https://www.penn.museum/sites/egypt/writing.shtml

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Papyrus

How come Egyptian hieroglyphics are recognizable to us, but Sumerian cuneiform isn’t?

Two words: art supplies.

The Sumerian scribes used a stylus to make marks in soft clay. A stylus pokes indentations into clay, but not strokes. They were limited to wedge-shapes because if they’d tried to draw a curve there would be a build-up of clay on one side of the stroke, like when a snow plow clears a road.

The Egyptians wrote on paper—to be specific, papyrus (pah PIE roos). Papyrus is a reed that grows around the Nile River delta. They found that you can soak the pith (the insides) of the reeds until it becomes soft, then pound it flat. The flattened strips are woven into a sheet, pressed and left to dry. When the sheet’s dry you can write or draw on it.

You cut the skin off a papyrus reed with a knife, leaving the pith. The pith is cut into strips.

Soak the pith strips in water.

The strips are rolled flat.

The strips are woven into a sheet and left to dry under some heavy weight.

Ta-da! It’s a sheet of papyrus!

(I was right—the papyrus reed is triangular in cross-section. I hadn’t lost my marbles after all.)

Here are two scribes, one writes in cuneiform and one writes in hieroglyphics.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoqavHDlKZ0

Watch some experts make papyrus:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCR8n7qS43w
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sO72jfUCYSg

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