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NOVA scienceNOW: Papyrus

Viewing Ideas

Before Watching

  1. Compare maps of modern and ancient Egypt. On a map of ancient Egypt, have students locate the ancient city of Oxyrhynchus. Then have them try to locate Oxyrhynchus on a modern map of Egypt—it's not there! Oxyrhynchus, which is about 10 miles from the Nile, was abandoned around 650 A.D. when the canal system bringing water to the city fell into disrepair. Tell students that the papyrus documents analyzed in the segment were found in Oxyrhynchus.

  2. Discuss the value of understanding past cultures. Ask students why it is important to understand what life was like hundreds or thousands of years ago. Why is it important to investigate ancient cultures? (The information often helps us understand how cultures developed, and it can shed light on aspects of life today.) Ask if your region was inhabited 2,000 years ago, at the time Oxyrhynchus was a thriving regional center. What kind of evidence is there for past settlement in your area? Consider having teams research and report on what the region where they reside was like 100, 500, 1,000, and 2,000 years ago.

  3. Explore how paper, plants, and fabric are held together. By looking at the different ways of making a flat surface, students will better appreciate what is required to make papyrus serve as "paper" and how surprising it is for such a material to last 2,000 years. Many things in our world exist as thin sheets or layers, such as paper, fabric, and plant leaves. These thin materials hold together in different ways. For example, paper is made of entangled wood fibers pressed together. Fabrics such as wool and cotton are often woven, and leaves are made of connected veins that form a framework and cells that form a continuous tissue. Give students a hand lens and/or a microscope and ask them to observe three or four different types of paper (e.g., wrapping paper, newsprint, hand-made stationery, and linen or rag paper). Have them rip the paper, observe the torn edge, and describe and compare each type. For example, students should note the directions of the fibers, how close together they are, and how the fibers interlock to hold the paper together. Then have students closely examine plant leaves and fabric. Students should crush or tear the plant part and then observe the torn edge. Ask students to name ways that paper, fabric, and leaves are alike and different. (All appear to have fibers, though they are of different lengths and shapes. The fibers in paper are short, straight, and tangled together. Cotton and wool have long fibers that are woven, with the threads crossing in an organized manner. Leaves have a network of veins and cells that form a continuous tissue.)

    Optional: Put two drops of iodine on a piece of paper. If starch is present, the iodine will turn brownish-black. Starch is often used as a binder (i.e., glue) to help paper fibers stay together.

  4. Examine a papyrus document and hypothesize how papyrus was made. Have student pairs visit the Oxyrhynchus Web site below. All the fragments on this site are made of papyrus. Ask pairs to closely examine the horoscope piece. Ask them to use their observations to hypothesize how papyrus was made. Record their hypotheses on the board. (Narrow strips of flat papyrus were woven together, giving papyrus an obvious vertical and horizontal grain. Then the joined strips were pounded. The pounding released a resin that acted like glue and pressed the fibers of different pieces together.)

After Watching

  1. Revisit student hypotheses about how people made papyrus (i.e., Before Viewing question #4). Ask students to reexamine their hypotheses and compare their original ideas of how papyrus was made to how it actually is made, as described in the segment. How closely did their ideas match the actual method? Which did not match? Have students share their original and revised hypotheses. Read aloud the process for making papyrus. Then for homework, ask students to figure out a way to use paper, cloth, or plant material to make a simulated sheet of papyrus. (Papyrus is a reed that grows to be about 15 feet tall. Its stem is triangular and sectioned and can grow to about three inches in width. Sheets of papyrus were made in the following way: The stem was cut into pieces 12-18 inches long. The outer layer was peeled and removed. The stem was cut lengthwise to make long, thin strips. The strips were placed side by side. A second set of strips was placed perpendicularly on top of the first layer. The strips were then rolled or hit to remove moisture, and heavy objects were placed on top to flatten the strips and cause fluids inside to leak and stick the strips together. The surface of the papyrus was then polished. The natural adhesive ability of papyrus made it a desirable material conducive for use as a writing surface. Large sheets could be made by naturally "gluing" smaller sections together.)

  2. Discuss the importance of the Oxyrhynchus findings. Consider the following questions with students:

    • Why was papyrus important in ancient Egypt?
    • What kinds of things did people write about in ancient Egypt?
    • Why should we decipher these ancient writings?
    • What information about life today do you think might be interesting to people 2,000 years from now?

    (The first written language was recorded on clay tablets about 5,000 years ago. Clay tablets break and wear easily (unless they are fired), and large tablets are difficult to carry. For these reasons, the invention of papyrus as a writing surface was revolutionary. Also, papyrus sheets could be rolled up for easy storage. Papyrus was used for official purposes, such as legal documents, tax receipts, and census returns as well as for private purposes, such as loans, marriage contracts, letters, invitations, and even horoscopes. The excavated documents have helped historians reconstruct what daily life was like for the people in Egypt 2,000 years ago, which in fact has striking similarities to the way we live our lives today. Since the fourth question has no particular answer, invite students to identify things in the culture and their lives that symbolize life in their world.)

  3. Make a class time capsule. Have each student write a paragraph about life in the 21st century, stating what he or she would like future generations to know about his or her life today. Ask volunteers to share their ideas. Brainstorm with students about the kinds of things that cause paper to decompose (e.g., water, oxygen, fungus, bacteria). What kinds of containers would best preserve their writings for many years? What is the best kind of material on which to write their message? Is there a material available today that is better than paper for preserving ideas for a long time? And where should the container be placed for best preservation? As a class, make a capsule that will preserve student writings, and place it in a location where it will be well protected. Agree on a time when this capsule should be retrieved and opened, such as the end of the school year, when they graduate from high school, on their 25th reunion, or in 50 years.

  4. Sequence and interpret an actual Oxyrhynchus document. Certain aspects of life today are quite similar to life 2,000 years ago. Make this point by dividing into four or five sections a document related to a public event in Oxyrhynchus. (Use the translated Oxyrhynchus text at: Give a different section of the text to each group of students. Ask them to read and interpret their section. As a class, sequence the writings into a complete document. Then, discuss the following questions:

    • What might this event have been like?
    • Who might have written the text (or event program)?
    • Who might have attended the event?
    • Describe a similar program or note that might be written today.
  5. Research different kinds of writing materials. Assign students a different writing material, such as clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, vellum, rice paper, traditional paper made from wood pulp, or reusable digital paper of the future. Have them create an illustrated poster that includes the following information about their material:

    • A description of the writing material and how it is made.
    • When and where it was (or is) made and used.
    • An image or sample of the writing material.
    • The expected lifetime of the material and the kind of environment that would best preserve it.
    • The kind of writings that were (or are) done on the material and how people wrote on it.
    • The advantages and disadvantages of using the material for writing.
  6. Make paper. Tell students that paper is made by pressing wood pulp and wood fibers into thin sheets. Divide the class into groups, and have the students make paper following a procedure such as the one at

Links and Books

Web Sites

Ancient Greek Music on Papyrus: Two New Fragments
Describes fragments of ancient papyrus that contain musical notations.

Learning about Papyrology
Introduces students to what papyrology is and to ancient writing materials.

Oriental Institute Research Archives
Includes extensive resources about Egypt and the Ancient Near East.

POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online
Provides images and analysis of the Oxyrhynchus papyri.


Ancient Egypt
by George Hart. Dorling Kindersley, 2004.
Provides information about ancient Egyptian civilization and includes images of artifacts.

Cultural Atlas of Ancient Egypt
by John Baines and Jaromir Malek. Facts on File, 2000.
Describes Egyptian cultural and natural history and includes maps and photographs.

Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt
by David Rosalie. Facts on File, 2000.
Presents a time line of ancient Egypt as well as historical and archeological information.

The New Papyrological Primer
by P.W. Pestman. Leiden, 1990.
Discusses Greek papyrological texts and provides background information on each document.

Teacher's Guide
NOVA scienceNOW: Papyrus

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