Il Museo del Papiro a Siracusa: Writing History

Il Museo del Papiro a Siracusa: Writing History

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?

papyrus museum
The main gallery in the Museo del Papiro

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.

papyrus plants
Different versions of the plant from which papyrus is made

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, and later paper took over. This was because, simply, vellum is made from animal skins and animals were common in the north of Europe, and because paper is easier to print on. Papyrus was neither (being a warm-weather plant and an uneven surface). 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.

writing materials
A display of the various materials that were used for writing

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.

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.

papyrus making
A papyrus-making display

Visiting the Museo del Papiro:

Getting there: The best way is to walk, as the old streets of Ortigia are winding and nigh incomprehensible to foreign drivers. Also, I didn’t see any parking. The address is: Via Nizza 14, Siracusa 96100.

Opening hours:

  • May to September: Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 AM to 6 PM, and Sundays and holidays 10:30 AM to 2 PM. Closed on Mondays.
  • October to April: Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 AM to 2 PM. Closed on Mondays.

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

Website: You can visit the website for the Museo del Papiro here.

Good to know: When I visited Siracusa the first time, the tourist brochures I picked up around town had the Museo del Papiro located on the mainland. It’s actually on Ortigia, so make sure you have the address handy, along with an updated map!

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