Il Museo del Papiro

In today’s society, everyone is caught up with the question of paper: Should we use it, or should we ‘go paperless’? I can’t even tell you how many emails my bank has sent me suggesting I do all of my bill paying online. People in favor say that it will save trees and reduce our carbon footprint. People who aren’t ask “What will happen when we get rid of paper?”

Here’s another question: What happened before paper?

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We may never know the answer to that question, simply because no one wrote it down. However, as far back as 4000 BC, people began to write. The original writings were carved onto stone and was reserved for only the most important documentation. As both kingdoms and industries progressed, carrying stones around was deemed infeasible, and people looked for a more portable – albeit slightly less permanent – writing surface.

They came up with papyrus.

That’s not just the name of a font on the computer that creates strong feelings in some people. It’s also a kind of fiber, similar to paper, made from the papyrus plant, which is common in Africa and the Middle East. Once people figured out how to turn the tall, bamboo-like shoots into a sheet suitable for carrying writing, it was used for millennia. From the ancient Egyptians to the Greek Empire, papyrus was the only writing surface for official documents and communication. As these empires expanded, the conquerors took papyrus plants and the knowledge of papyrus manufacturing with them.

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Somewhere along the line, papyrus fell out of style. As power shifted away from the south of Europe to the north, vellum was favored as writing sheets. This was because, simply, vellum is made from animal skins, and animals were common in the north of Europe, and papyrus was not (being a warm-weather plant). The result was that people forgot how to make papyrus; it became a useless skill, kind of like the art of handwriting is today (I, for the record, almost always write in cursive, despite complaints that my Hs look like Ws).

In the 18th century, a man tried to fix that. He traveled to the places where people grow papyrus. He studied sheets of papyrus that had been found by archaeologists. He tried method after method of making papyrus sheets. Finally, he nailed it.

It was decided that a museum should be opened to educated the public about his findings, and Siracusa was settled upon for a location. Papyrus has long played a role in Siracusan life. Archaeological digs have found hundreds of sheets of papyrus, some dating back to the original Greek colony at Siracusa. Even today, if you wander through the streets of Siracusa, you’ll see that every shop has a display of miniature replicas of papyrus sheets.

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The Museo del Papiro is very small; the whole of it fits into a handful of rooms in one of the palazzi on Ortigia. Nevertheless, it’s very interesting. One room shows the different kinds of papyrus, another demonstrations the manufacture of papyrus, and another displays some of the original sheets of papyrus that have been found in Siracusa. There’s even a video showing how the production of papyrus works.

I tried to visit the Museo del Papiro the first time I was in Siracusa, but I had an old map, which had the museum located on the mainland. I could not for the life of me find it. As it turns out, the museum is actually on Ortigia, which explains why I couldn’t find it. The last time, though, I managed to locate it.

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Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 9am until 2pm.

Cost is €5, including a nifty little guide to the museum (in both Italian and English).

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