Scientists led by the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, Grenoble, France and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have discovered the composition of red and black inks in ancient Egyptian papyri from circa 100-200 AD, leading to a number of hypotheses about writing practices. The analysis, based on synchrotron techniques, shows that lead was probably used as a dryer rather than as a pigment, similar to its usage in 15th-century Europe during the development of oil painting. They have published their results in PNAS.
In ancient Egypt, Egyptians used black ink for writing the main body of text, while red ink was often used to highlight headings, instructions or keywords. During the last decade, many scientific studies have been conducted to elucidate the invention and history of ink in ancient Egypt and in the Mediterranean cultures, for instance ancient Greece and Rome.
The scientists used the powerful X-rays of the ESRF to study the red and black ink in papyri from the Tebtunis temple library, the only large-scale institutional library known to have survived from ancient Egypt. The samples studied in this research project are exceptional, not only because they derive from the famous Tebtunis temple library, but also because the analysis includes as many as 12 ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments, all inscribed with red and black inks.
“By applying 21st century, state-of-the-art technology to reveal the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we are contributing to the unveiling the origin of writing practices,” explains Marine Cotte, scientist at the ESRF and co-corresponding author of the paper.
“Something very striking was that we found that lead was added to the ink mixture, not as a dye, but as a dryer of the ink, so that the ink would stay on the papyrus,” says Cotte. The researchers came to this conclusion because they did not find any other type of lead, like lead white or minium, which should be present if lead was used as a pigment. “The fact that the lead was not added as a pigment but as a dryer infers that the ink had quite a complex recipe and could not be made by just anyone,” adds Thomas Christiansen, Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen and co-corresponding author .
A surprising fact is that the ink recipe can be related to paint practices developed many centuries later during the Renaissance. “In the XV Century, when artists rediscovered the oil painting in Europe, the challenge was to