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Usually only one side of papyrus sheets was used to write on in classic antiquity. What is the difference between the two sides of a sheet, and why would you write on "recto" only?

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    I'm not sure about this but I can speculate that when rolling there is a safer stride orientation to be outside as opposed to inside. Because writing is done on the inside, this orientation is, therefore, the recto. Its a logic of a very practical nature and I don't have any experience in folding papyrus but I would argue that there must be a difference (depending on stride orientation).
    – armatita
    Jan 9, 2018 at 14:53
  • I understand that part of the manufacturing process was to polish the surface with a smooth stone. I think it might be important to know if they polished both sides or just one. If only one, that would mean it may have been more the manufacturers than the writers making the choice, and could easily be either the stride consideratio that @armatita raises, or merely convention.
    – EricS
    Jan 9, 2018 at 16:00

4 Answers 4

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A little Googling suggests that it has nothing to do with the writing surface itself, but was just a common-sense result of how a roll of papyrus behaved. This essay from the US' Metropolitan Museum of Art says:

Papyri were always rolled with the vertical-running pith on the outside because of the natural tendency of the sheet to curve in that direction; inscriptions and illustrations on a papyrus roll are generally on the horizontal side of the sheet, where they would be protected when rolled up (25.3.31).

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Several reasons added up to prefering the recto side:

As long as the roll was the preferred form for books (yes, you can fold papyrus and yes, it was done quite a lot when using it for codices, 2./3. century AD): You had to choose one side because the form of the medium(*) made it highly impractible to use both sides for one text. The scripture was done on the inside, for better protection from external forces. Papyrus tends to roll itself this way (recto on the inside), so not "counter-roling" it seems a good idea. So, recto is your choice.

Plus, the already mentioned stripes of papyrus fibre running horizontally would help the scribe to stay "in line", write a straight line and it is supposed to be easier to write on this side then the other, less scratchy.

Of course, there are many examples for the use of both sides, mostly secondary use and notes (just as one would write on the backside of a letter today), but I do not know of an example where only the verso was used.

(*) The form of the medium "bookroll" demands scripture in columns which are placed next to each other (running down all the way the short side of the roll), Scroll of the Book of Esther, Seville, Spain.

The reading practice was to unwind the next column on the right while winding the already read part up on the left. Doing so, the reader always had several columns in view.

(Will provide sources later.)

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  • The form of the medium? I have not understood this part.
    – HannesH
    Jan 10, 2018 at 16:53
  • I edited the answer. Has it become clearer now?
    – Lisa
    Jan 10, 2018 at 17:43
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... the difference between the two sides of the sheet ... stems from the strips being at right angles to each other. The recto side, on which the strips run horizontally, was the side generally preferred for writing, while the verso, which had vertical strips, was less frequently used. - Etherington & Roberts, Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology

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  • Yes, that's what i read as well. However, I see no reason why the side those fibers go horizontally would be better to write on.
    – HannesH
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:08
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    @HannesH: Legibility! Try writing on any rough surface (and yes, papyrus is most definitely a rough surface) with the grain running vertically. Jan 8, 2018 at 23:19
  • @Pieter Geerkens- I dit, and i found no advantage with fibers going horizontal. Dit you?
    – HannesH
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:48
  • To be honest, this Egyptian papyrus is definitely written at a right angle to the strips. tahrirnews.com/uploads/2017/08/1349759750508417360.jpg
    – fdb
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:55
  • Doesn't legibility as a reason imply that hyroglyphs, written vertically, used the other (verso) side? Did they?
    – HannesH
    Jan 9, 2018 at 1:08
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There is also the fact that papyrus books were written on scrolls. You can't really write a continuous text on both sides of the scroll.

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  • Sure. But why choose the recto side, specifically?
    – HannesH
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:29
  • @HannesH. Because the vertical strips run in the direction of the writing.
    – fdb
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:41
  • How is that helpful? Greek letters have more vertical lines than horizontal lines. You hop fibers more often if they run horizontally.
    – HannesH
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:46
  • @HannesH. I actually think you are right. See my comment on the other answer.
    – fdb
    Jan 8, 2018 at 23:59
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    @RedGrittyBrick. I think that once you have rolled up the papyrus into a scroll it is not easy to turn it inside out without damaging it.
    – fdb
    Jan 9, 2018 at 15:16

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