By analysing a total of 12 ancient papyrus fragments, scientists have discovered some interesting details regarding how the Egyptians used to mixed their black and red ink. As already known, the ancient Egyptians utilised inks for writing.
Prior studies have already shown that the Egyptians were utilising ink at least as far back as 3200 BCE. But interestingly, the samples that were studied in this case were actually dated back to 100-200 CE.
These samples were originally collected from the famous Tebtunis temple library. By utilising a variety of synchrotron radiation techniques, the scientists were able to reveal the elemental, molecular, and structural composition of the inks in striking details.
“By applying 21st century, state-of-the-art technology to reveal the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we are contributing to the unveiling of the origin of writing practices,” says physicist Marine Cotte from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in France.
According to the scientists, the red inks, which were typically used in highlighting headings, instructions, or keywords, were most likely coloured by the natural pigment ochre. However, the most interesting discovery was the fact that lead-based compounds were used in both the black and the red inks. This was also done without using any of the traditional lead-based pigments.
“Lead-based driers prevent the binder from spreading too much, when ink or paint is applied on the surface of paper or papyrus,” the team wrote in their study. “Indeed, in the present case, lead forms an invisible halo surrounding the ochre particles.”
The use of lead-based compounds as driers explains how the ancient Egyptians kept their papyrus smudge-free. It also suggests that the Egyptians knew some specialised and complex ink manufacturing techniques. It is highly likely that the temple priests were not responsible for mixing the inks.
“The fact that the lead was not added as a pigment but as a drier infers that the ink had quite a complex recipe and could not be made by just anyone,” said Egyptologist Thomas Christiansen, from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. “We hypothesise that there were workshops specialised in preparing inks.”
Interestingly, such preparation of red ink has also been mentioned in a Greek document that has been dated back to the third century CE. This technique was also adopted in 15th century Europe as oil paintings began to get popular. The recent discovery seems to prove that the ancient Egyptians knew about this particular trick at least 1,400 years earlier.