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Egyptian writing sample from a medical treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 930) belonging to the Tebtunis temple library with headings marked in red ink.

Danish Experts Discover the Earliest Secrets of Egyptian Writing Ink

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Egyptian writing has always fascinated modern people because it is so exotic. Researchers studying Egyptian writing in manuscripts from an ancient Egyptian temple have made an important discovery. They were studying the black and red inks in some of the ancient texts when they found that their composition was unique. They discovered that the inks used in Egyptian writing were specifically composed to dry quickly, just like inks developed thousands of years later during the European Renaissance.

An Analysis Of Egyptian Writing Reveals Ink Breakthrough

Recently, a Danish cross-disciplinary team were examining texts from Egypt’s Tebtunis temple library when they uncovered the secrets of the pigments used in Egyptian writing. The library of papyri texts was found in the Fayum (also Faiyum) area south of Cairo in the early 20 th century.

The Danish team focused on 12 fragments that form part of the famous Carlsberg Collection in Copenhagen. These texts are poorly preserved and date from the 1 st to the 3 rd century AD when Egypt was a Roman province .

Visible light pictures of the 12 Egyptian writing samples with the sequential numbers assigned to them during the experiments written in bold. The papyrus fragments derive from larger manuscripts from the Tebtunis temple library that are inscribed with both red and black ink (T. Christiansen et al. / PNAS)

Visible light pictures of the 12 Egyptian writing samples with the sequential numbers assigned to them during the experiments written in bold. The papyrus fragments derive from larger manuscripts from the Tebtunis temple library that are inscribed with both red and black ink (T. Christiansen et al. / PNAS)

Egyptian inks were developed as early as 3200 BC, which is over 5000 years ago! According to the University of Copenhagen , the Egyptians used “black inks for the primary body of text and using red inks to highlight headings and keywords.”

A team from the university investigated the inks on papyri fragments using X-rays and powerful microscopes, which were part of the university’s interfaculty collaborative ‘CoNext’ project. Non-invasive techniques were employed to preserve the precious Egyptian writings. The advanced equipment and interfaculty collaboration allowed the researchers “to study the molecular and structural composition of the inks,” reports the University of Copenhagen .

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.” (The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and the ESRF / PNAS)

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.” (The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection and the ESRF / PNAS)

The team’s conclusions on the Egyptian ink analysis revealed that the red and black ink compositions were completely different from anything they had ever seen. The researchers wrote in the PNAS that “Lead compounds were detected in most red inks and some black inks and their distribution supports that they were probably employed for their drying properties rather than for coloring ink.” This means that the high level of lead in the ink was to ensure that they did not smear or smudge, which has always been an annoying problem for scribes.

Egyptian Ink Production Was A Separate Specialty

The way that lead was used to make the ink dry faster was similar to “15th century Europe during the development of oil paintings,” the researchers wrote in PNAS.

It also appears that the ancient Egyptians learned to use lead in their writing inks hundreds of years earlier than once believed. They made inks from organic materials, such as gum, which were formed into tiny pellets. The pellets would then be placed in water and turned into ink when a scribe wanted to write a text.

The composition of the red and black inks in ancient Egyptian writing is providing new insights into the production of texts in Egypt’s oldest temples. These inks required a wide variety of raw materials and making them took a long time. The researchers wrote in PNAS that “it seems unlikely that the priests, who wrote the manuscripts, manufactured the inks themselves.” This means that Egyptian writing inks were made by a specialist or specialists and then used by the scribes.

An aerial view of the ESRF European Synchrotron used in the recent Egyptian writing study. This synchrotron is the most powerful in the world, producing X-rays 10 trillion times brighter than medical X-rays. (Stef Candé / ESRF)

An aerial view of the ESRF European Synchrotron used in the recent Egyptian writing study. This synchrotron is the most powerful in the world, producing X-rays 10 trillion times brighter than medical X-rays. (Stef Candé / ESRF)

Egyptian Writing Research Will Lead To New Insights

In reference to the ink analysis, Thomas Christiansen, a Danish Egyptologist who took part in the study, told the University of Copenhagen that “the priests must have acquired them or overseen their production at specialized workshops much like the Master Painters from the Renaissance.” These specialty ink workshops may have been attached to the temple.

The Danish research team wrote in the PNAS that “already in antiquity the drying properties of lead oxide and lead white were known and exploited.” There is some documentary evidence to support this. For example, a Hellenistic text on alchemy states that red ink production was already something that specialty workshops understood and produced for Greek scribes.

The Danish team of experts were unable to determine the origin of the lead used to create faster drying inks. This could have helped them to understand the process involved in the manufacture of these specialty inks.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in the history of ink making. The Danish team has more or less proven that the ancient Egyptians were pioneers in the production of specialized pigments. In fact, according to the authors of the study, the earliest Egyptian ink “chemists” even found a way to make an “almost invisible ink,” as stated in the PNAS study.

More research into Egyptian ink pigments will tell us more about their properties, which can be very useful. It can help experts to better understand how these compounds deteriorate over time. This in turn can help preservation experts who oversee the storage and exhibition of historic texts and manuscripts from antiquity.

Top image: Egyptian writing sample from a medical treatise (inv. P. Carlsberg 930) belonging to the Tebtunis temple library with headings marked in red ink.                        Source: The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection / PNAS

By Ed Whelan

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