Scientists led by the ESRF and the University of Copenhagen have uncovered the long-standing mystery behind the composition of red and black inks used in ancient Egyptian papyri from around 100-200 AD. The find reveals that these ancient populations used similar writing techniques as seen in 15th century Europe. Impressive!
To come to this realization, the scientists used the powerful X-rays of the ESRF to study the ink seen on as many as 12 ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments from the only large-scale institutional library known to have survived from ancient Egypt: the Tebtunis temple library.
“By applying state-of-the-art 21st-century technology to reveal the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we are contributing to the unveiling the origin of writing practices,” said in a statement Marine Cotte, a 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."
A technique found in the Renaissance
This is crucial information because it shows that the Egyptian's were years ahead in terms of their writing technology. Their particular ink recipe can be found in paint practices that emerged many centuries later during the Renaissance.
“In the XV Century, when artists rediscovered the oil painting in Europe, the challenge was to dry the oil in a reasonable amount of time”, said Marine Cotte. “Painters realized that some lead compounds could be used as efficient dryers."
The researchers further speculated that there must have been people dedicated to the task of creating ink at the time, meaning it was taken quite seriously and was quite specialized.
“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. We hypothesize that there were workshops specialized in preparing inks,” explained Thomas Christiansen, Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen and co-corresponding author of the paper.