CAIRO – 28 October 2020: A group of scholars discovered the formation of red and black inks in ancient Egyptian papyri, which led to a number of hypotheses about writing practices in that ancient era.
The analyzes, based on synchrotron techniques, conducted by researchers in Grenoble, France, and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, showed that "lead" was probably used as a desiccant rather than as a pigment, similar to its use in Europe in the fifteenth century during the development of oil painting.
In ancient Egypt, Egyptians used black ink to write the main text, while they often used red ink to highlight titles, instructions, or key words.
During the past decade, many scientific studies have been conducted to clarify the invention and history of ink in ancient Egypt and in the cultures of the Mediterranean, for example ancient Greece and Rome.
According to Phys.org. scientists have used powerful x-rays to study red and black ink in papyrus from the library of the Temple of Tebtunis (Umm Al-Barijat) in Fayoum, 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 it came from the library of the Temple of Tebtunis, but also because the analysis includes up to 12 ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments, all engraved in red and black inks.
"By applying the latest technologies in the 21st century to uncover the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we are contributing to uncovering the origin of writing practices," explains Marine Cote, a scientist at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and co-author of the study.
“The very amazing thing was that we found that lead was added to the ink mixture, not as a dye, but as an ink dryer, so that the ink remains on the papyrus,” Cote says.
The researchers came to this conclusion because they did not find any other type of lead, such as white lead or aluminum, which should be present if lead was used as a pigment.
“The fact that the lead was not added as a dye but as a dryer indicates that the ink has a completely complex recipe that no one can manufacture,” adds Thomas Christiansen, an Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study.
According to Christiansen, there is a surprising fact that the prescription for ink can be related to painting practices that were developed several centuries later during the Renaissance.
Marine Cote says, “In the fifteenth century, when artists rediscovered oil painting in Europe, the challenge was to dry the oil out in a reasonable time. The painters realized that some lead compounds could be used as effective dryers. This discovery was only possible through the different techniques that the team used at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, such as the X-ray microscopy, ID21, to study parts of the papyrus. They incorporate several synchrotron technologies, "Micro X-ray Fluorescence, Fine X-ray Diffraction, and Fine Infrared Spectroscopy" to examine the chemical composition from the millimeter to the sub-micrometer scale to provide information not just about the elements, but also on the molecular and structural composition of the inks. Scientists discovered that lead is bound to different elements: A complex mixture of lead phosphate, potassium lead sulfate, lead carboxylate and lead chloride.”