Paper mache in the ancient world

You may have noticed that I like to work with paper mache.  I think it’s an under-appreciated medium, and in my experience many people don’t realise the versatility and potential it can offer.  I blame primary schools.  The process of gluing newspaper strips on a balloon is not versatile or engaging, and tends to produce results that look exactly like newspaper strips glued on a balloon unless you’re Scott Stoll, who makes fantastic Jack-o-Lanterns using balloons.  The history of paper mache is fascinating, and today I thought it would be fun to take a look at paper mache in the ancient world.

Techniques that fall under the modern umbrella term “paper mache” were probably first used in ancient Egypt.*  The stuff is called cartonnage, and was made by gluing together layers of papyrus, linen, or both.  The papyrus fragments were recycled from books and other documents, which means cartonnage objects can be a goldmine for people who study ancient literature.

The first picture here is the coffin of an unknown woman, made from cartonnage.  Whoever she was, she was someone fairly ordinary; we can see from the quality of her coffin that she wasn't wealthy.  Compare her coffin with the second picture, which shows an expensive cartonnage.  It's well made with a great deal of attention to detail, and it has been gilded.  Cartonnage was more economical and easier to work with than wood, but it wasn't necessarily a cheap option.

A Third Intermediary period coffin made from cartonnage.  Image from The Walters Art Museum.

A Roman Period cartonnage in the Brooklyn Museum.

The ancient Egyptians and Aegean peoples were also making armour out of what paper mache artist Dan Reeder terms “cloth mache” - layers of cloth laminated together with glue.  A cuirass made from linen cloth mache was called a linothorax in Greek, and was still in use by Alexander the Great’s army.  It was basically the Kevlar of its time.  It was able to absorb and deflect the force of an impact, and it was much lighter than metal.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay testing a linothorax.  The results speak for themselves.

Yes, that's what Classics scholars get up to in the name of research.  Now you know why I have a Classics degree.

This image from an ancient Greek vase shows a soldier wearing a linothorax.

I’ve heard that paper mache was used in Han dynasty China to make helmets, but frustratingly I can’t find any sources for this let alone any pictures.  The fact that I can only read a few characters in Mandarin doesn’t help, and if any readers can point me in the direction of some good sources I’d be very grateful.  However, I did manage to find this fantastic Japanese Edo period (17th century CE) helmet which incorporates a paper mache sculpture.  So far as I can determine, this was a functional helmet. 

Edo Period Samurai helmet.  Image from

The Edo Period isn't ancient at all, but I thought it would be an interesting way to finish up today's post anyway, since I was discussing paper mache armour.  Samurai helmets from this period featured elaborate sculptures like the one above in order to identify the owner.  They were a type of feudal crest, much like a European knight's coat of arms.  Each Samurai had his own unique insignia, and they were often constructed out of leather and paper mache.   Using these materials instead of metal would have reduced the weight of the helmet and made it less awkward to wear, and you can see from the picture why this was desirable - those crests could be enormous.

*I'm calling it "ancient Egypt" because I can't spell the word Pharonic Phaoronic... you know what I mean.