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Mediterranean On the Rocks:
The Paper Boat

Experimental archaeologists seeking to learn what life was like in the Mediterranean during the Stone Age work to replicate the tools and technologies of the Neolithic culture. In this episode, the Frontiers crew and host Alan Alda join a crew of archaeologists to build a boat of papyrus reeds, and learn how to make an obsidian blade from expert flintknapper Curtis Runnels.

Curriculum Links
National Science Education Standards
Activity: From Papyrus to Paper









(Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for related Frontiers shows and activities!)


5-8: Motions & Forces; Transfer of Energy
9-12: Structure & Properties of Matter; Motions & Forces

5-8: Structure & Function in Living Systems; Populations & Ecosystems
9-12: Matter; Energy & Organization in Living Systems
5-8, 9-12: Abilities of Technological Design; Understandings About Science & Technology
5-8: Science & Technology in Society
9-12: Science & Technology in Local, National & Global Challenges
5-8: Science as a Human Endeavor; Nature of Science; History of Science
9-12: Science as a Human Endeavor; Nature of Scientific Knowledge


Could a Stone Age reed boat have carried people across open seas? The Frontiers crew set out to answer this question. They wanted to find out if people living 13,000 years ago on what is now the Greek mainland had the technology to sail to an island 100 miles away. Frontiers worked with boat builder and maritime archaeologist Harry Tzalas to build the boat and find out where and how Stone Age cave dwellers obtained the volcanic rock obsidian for their tools.

Papyrus used to build the replica of the ancient boat once grew plentifully along the Nile and around the Mediterranean. Egyptians 5,000 years ago made mats, sandals, boats, sailcloth and sheets of writing material from papyrus, which is where the word paper gets its name.

Using common household materials and similar but more modern methods, you can make your own paper. And it's recyclable!

NOTE: Making paper can be messy. A kitchen/basement sink with counter space is the best place for making handmade paper. A simple but crude frame of screen and duct tape will work but for nicer sheets of paper to size, a mould (frame) is recommended.


  • various papers: paper towel, tissues, envelopes, newsprint, etc.
  • 2 plastic dishpans or other containers
  • pieces of screen, about 40 cm x 40 cm
  • towels for blotting and drying
  • whisk
  • blender (optional)
  • duct tape
  • wax paper
  • rolling pin
  • iron

  1. Tear the papers into small pieces about the size of a postage stamp or smaller. Start with 4 to 6 cups of torn paper.

  2. Place the paper pieces in a dishpan or other container. Add enough warm water to cover. Soak the paper for several hours. As paper starts to absorb the water, fibers separate and break down into a soggy mush (pulp). Scrunch or mash the paper occasionally to help it break down.

  3. After a few hours of soaking, whisk to mix the pulp until fibers are separated and evenly distributed. Break apart any clumps by hand. This watery mix is called slurry.

  4. If you have a blender to use, pour the slurry into a blender, a portion at a time. Pulse a few times for a few seconds (too much blending will pulverize the slurry). The consistency should be that of watery oatmeal. If necessary, add a little more warm water to reach the right consistency. If you don't have a blender for this step, whisk the slurry until it achieves the desired consistency.

  5. Place the framed screen over an empty dishpan or sink. Pour the slurry onto the screen. Spread it out with your hands as you press out excess water, so it's flat and thin on the screen.

  6. Move the screen containing the flattened slurry onto one or two towels. Cover the screen with wax paper. Squeeze out excess water with a rolling pin. Slowly remove the wax paper from the flattened pulp.

  7. Place sheets of wax paper under and over the screen with the wet paper and place the screen on a dry towel. Place another dry towel on top of the wax paper covering the wet paper. Place heavy objects on top of the "sandwich" and allow the paper to dry completely. If the paper isn't pressed as it dries, it will not dry flat.

  8. Change the towels occasionally. Remove the damp wax paper after one or two days. Carefully peel the paper off the screen after two days and place between dry towels. Layering with dry wax paper keeps paper from sticking and picking up cloth fibers.

  9. When the finished paper is dry, place it between two towels or cloths and iron at low heat. Cut or trim the paper as desired.

    VARIATIONS: You may wish to experiment with dried flowers or other plant materials. Natural plant matter should be boiled in washing soda (found in the detergent section of the grocery store) and rinsed until the water is clear. No two pieces of handmade paper will be the same. For scientific comparison, groups of students might experiment with various kinds of paper to see how long they take to break down into pulp, and compare the final products. Newspapers can be used, but the ink will leave black marks on utensils and hands.


  1. Compare the reed boat with other ancient boats, such as the longboats used by Vikings, the baidarka used by Alaskan Aleuts, canoes built by Pacific Islanders and the Native American bark canoe.

  2. Make a timeline and map of the region that includes references to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks featured in this story and in the story on copper smelting in this episode. Illustrate on the timeline different cultures and inventions of each era.

  3. To learn more about the replica of the ancient Greek boat crafted by Tzalas, visit


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Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
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