Red and black ink from Egyptian papyri unveil ancient writing practices

Red and black ink from Egyptian papyri unveil ancient writing practices
Detail of a medical treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 930) from the Tebtunis temple library with headings marked in red ink. Image credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. Credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection.

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.

Red and black ink from Egyptian papyri unveil ancient writing practices
A papyrus fragment from a long astrological treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 89) from the Tebtunis temple library and the ESRF X-ray fluorescence maps showing the distribution of iron (red) and lead (blue) in the red letters that write out the ancient Egyptian word for “star”. Image credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and the ESRF. Credit: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and the ESRF.

“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

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Why Devote an Entire Blog to Writing About Media Violence?

The Short Answer

For four main reasons. First, we wanted to thoroughly review all of the nooks and crannies of media violence research in a way that’s simple and accessible for all audiences. In contrast, many books on the subject tend to be targeted toward academics (read: boring and complex), can be overly simplistic (e.g., only focus on video games, only scratch the surface of the research), or inaccurately represent the state of scientific research on the subject.

Second, we want to counteract the misinformation about media violence that always seems be circulating. As science reporting in both reputable news outlets and online have become increasingly inaccurate (imagine that, people on the internet are often wrong!), there is greater need for scientists to speak up and set the record straight.

Third, we’d like our research to reach beyond the “Ivory Tower” of academia. Researchers frequently discuss their findings with other researchers, but rarely make their findings accessible to the average person. We believe that we have a moral obligation to make this research publicly available, since much of it is publicly-funded (we’re surprised taxpayers don’t demand this of scientists more often!)

Lastly, we’re frequently contacted by people – students, parents, reporters, and gamers – who want answers to the very questions we hope to address in this blog. It’d be nice (and time-saving!) to provide them with a link to the answer, including the option to dive deeper into the research upon which that answer is based.

The Long Answer

We’ve got a confession to make: We’re not the first researchers to write about media violence (gasp!) Heck, we’re even guilty of writing books on the subject ourselves!

So why go to the effort of writing a blog at all if others have already written about this stuff?

We did it because we believe that there’s a gap needing to be filled when it comes to mainstream books on media violence. To be sure, books such as Steven Kirsh’s Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research1 offer an incredibly thorough review of the research on media violence and my own book Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research and Public Policy2 do a terrific job of walking the reader through the nitty-gritty details of video game violence research from start to finish.

But these books tend to be fairly detail-heavy and theory-oriented – certainly not the sort of thing you read before bed or on a bus in ten-minute bursts. This is mostly because their target audience is people who already know a thing or two about media violence research (e.g., college students, media scholars, and public policy wonks.) Most people simply don’t have the experience to make heads or tails of books filled with academic gobbledygook.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t excellent books intended to be read by concerned parents and lay audiences. But even these books require considerable time and effort to find the answers people are

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