Papyrus of Hunefer. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Study of Ancient Egyptian Papyri Reveals Complex Ink Production Techniques

The discovery calls for the rewriting of the history and origins of writing.


A “striking” discovery made using state-of-the-art technology has helped reveal that ancient Egyptians used advanced forms of ink, predating, in essence, “recipes” that were rediscovered much later in Europe.  This means that Egyptian ink-production techniques were complex and that there were likely specialized workshops in ancient Egypt dedicated specifically to the production of Ink. The ancient Egyptians have been using different forms of Ink for writing for more than 5,000 years ago. Their ink, as it turns out, was extremely advanced.

Pyramids, temples, mummies and… ink

The Egyptian Pyramids are, without a doubt, one of the greatest contributions of Egyptian culture to the history of humankind. Although the pyramids are the most famous landmark of Egypt, the African country has so much more to offer. In addition to its intricate statues, temples, and ancient cities, the ancient Egyptian civilization also gave the world hieroglyphs, but more importantly, papyri, which eventually gave rise to complex forms of writing, literature, and record keeping. Such is the ancient Egyptians’ contribution that our word for “paper” is, in fact, a direct derivation of the word papyrus.

Extremely complex ink production

Experts analyzed a series of ancient Egyptian papyri. They discovered an intricate, extremely complex production technique that once again proves how far advanced the ancient Egyptians were thousands of years ago. Ancient Egyptian papyrus fragments analyzed with X-ray microscopy have revealed lead in red and black inks, used for its drying properties rather than as pigments. This is a revolutionary discovery. Although a similar lead-based “drying technique” has been documented in 15th-century European painting, its discovery in Egyptian papyri calls for re-evaluating ancient lead-based pigments and the history of writing on paper.

Egyptians used inks to write since at least 3200 BC

The ancient Egyptians used inks to write since at least 3200 BC when they utilized black inks for the main body of the text and red inks to highlight headings and keywords. This means that already 5,200 years ago, the ancient Egyptian culture could produce “works of literature.” In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen used advanced synchrotron radiation-based X-ray microscopy to investigate conserved red and black inks in a sample of 12 fragments of Papyrus from the Roman period in Egypt, around AD 100-200.

Fragments of the Turin Papyrus map. Image Credit: Public Domain.
Fragments of the Turin Papyrus Map. Image Credit: Public Domain.

Their discovery asserts the high level of advancement in ancient Egyptian times and helps, in essence, rewrite the history of writing. Marine Cotte, a scientist at the ESRF and co-author of the study, revealed that “by applying the 21st century, state-of-the-art technology to reveal the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we contribute to the unveiling the origin of writing practices.” In other words, the researchers discovered that lead was added to the ink mixture not as a dye but as a dryer, which helped retain the ink on the papyrus.

A complex recipe

“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 anyone. We hypothesize that there were workshops specialized in preparing ink,” explained co-author Thomas Christiansen, Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen. The discovery is important since it helps us rewrite the writing history on paper. Researchers say a similar lead-based drying technique was used in 15th-century Europe during oil painting development. The new study helps assert that the Egyptians discovered it 1,400 years earlier, making sure their papyri did not stain by applying this ink.

Time to reevaluate

According to the researchers, their discovery calls for re-evaluating the lead-based compounds found in ancient Mediterranean inks, as drying techniques may have become widespread much earlier than previously believed. The papyrus fragments studied are part of larger manuscripts from the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection at the University of Copenhagen, specifically, the Tebtunis Temple Library, the only large-scale institutional library preserved from ancient Egypt. The temple priests, who wrote the analyzed papyrus manuscripts, probably did not manufacture the inks themselves, as the researchers have revealed that the complexity of the red inks, in particular, must have required specialized knowledge.


Specialized workshops

Furthermore, judging by the number of raw materials needed to supply a library in a temple like the one in Tebtunis, the researchers believe that the priests acquired the Ink or supervised their production in specialized workshops much like those of the Master Painters of the Renaissance. The manuscripts recovered from the temple of Tebtunis in the Fayum feature scripts written in hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic, as well as Greek.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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