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 revealed 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.


The Egyptian Pyramids are, without a doubt, one of the greatest contributions of the 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, 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. In fact, such is the ancient Egyptians’ contribution that our word for “paper” is, in fact, a direct derivation of the word papyrus.

Now, experts have analyzed a series of ancient Egyptian papyri and discovered an intricate, extremely complex production technique which proves, once again, 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 actually a revolutionary discovery.

Although a similar lead-based “drying technique” has been documented in 15th-century European painting, its discovery on Egyptian papyri calls for a re-evaluation of ancient lead-based pigments and the history of writing on paper.

The ancient Egyptians have been using 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 was more than capable of producing “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 time 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 but not as a dye bit as a dryer, which helped retain the ink on the papyrus.

“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 ink,” explained co-author Thomas Christiansen, Egyptologist from the University of Copenhagen.

The discovery is of great importance since it helps us rewrite the history of writing on paper.

Researchers say that 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 particular ink.

According to the researchers, their discovery calls for a re-evaluation of 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 belonging to the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection at the University of Copenhagen, more specifically the Tebtunis Temple Library, which is 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 complexity of the red inks, in particular, must have required specialized knowledge, the researchers have revealed.

Furthermore, and 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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Sources and references: ESRF / PNAS / https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2004534117

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