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X-ray diffraction reveals ancient Egyptian illustration methods


Ancient illustration methods and pigments used on Egyptian papyruses from the Champollion Museum were investigated using high-resolution X-ray powder diffraction at beamline ID22. The results highlight a subtle balance between standardisation and creativity.

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The ancient Egyptians used papyrus as a medium for communication and illustration, with the first illustrations appearing in the fifth and sixth dynasties (2500 – 2100 B.C.). Funerary documents, such as the Book of the Dead, flourished during the New Kingdom period as they were considered essential for entering the afterlife.

The Champollion Museum in Vif, France, holds a collection of 280 papyrus fragments, many of which show scenes from the Book of the Dead. The colours used in these illustrations are typical of the Egyptian palette and include blue, green, red, pink, yellow and white, with different characters and elements of the illustrations outlined with a black line.

Researchers from the ESRF and the Néel Institute CNRS/UGA in Grenoble, France, with collaborators from the Champollion Museum, worked together to gain a deeper understanding of the illustration processs used in ancient Egypt. A combination of optical microscopy, synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction, X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy was used to identify the pigments and their overall distribution.

Two of the papyrus fragments of the collection (PAP-6 and PAP-12) were examined on beamline ID22, where X-ray fluorescence (XRF, Figure 1) and X-ray diffraction (XRD, Figure 2) experiments were carried out. Mixed Rietveld and Pawley refinement was carried out against the XRD data to quantify the fine fraction and to consider the heterogeneous microstructure of the pigments (Figure 2b).


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Fig. 1: X-ray fluorescence maps recorded on the papyrus fragment PAP-6 revealing the presence of several chemical elements. Data were normalised to the incident X-ray flux, and for each of the maps, the brightest pixel corresponds to the highest amount of the selected chemical element (logarithmic scale, arbitrary units).


The main features of the so-called ‘Godhead’ (PAP-6) can be seen on the iron map (Figure 1), revealing the presence of an underlying preparatory drawing in red hematite (Fe2O3). Yellow orpiment (As2S3) and blue cuprorivaite (CaCuSiO4, also known as Egyptian Blue) were used to colour the face of the God and its cap, respectively. A fluorescence reabsorption phenomenon occurs in regions where blue colour was applied on top of yellow, illustrating the layer superposition. The presence of lead in the blue parts is related to the possible use of an additional drier in these specific parts, to improve the adherence of the large cuprorivaite crystals. Finally, the presence of a small amount of cinnabar associated with hematite in the solar disk of the God reveals the choice of a particular shade of red made by ancient Egyptian craftsmen.


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Fig. 2: a) Phase profiles obtained from X-ray diffraction data recorded along the red line on the Godhead (PAP-6). The black arrows indicate the absence or presence of each phase, with no information on their relative amount. Hem: hematite; Syn: syngenite; Cin: cinnabar; Cup: cuprorivaite; Orp: orpiment; Qua: quartz. b) Mixed Rietveld and Pawley refinements against diffraction data collected on the Godhead (thin blue line: measured pattern; red line: calculated pattern; grey line: difference. Eleven phases are present. Inset: Cuprorivaite (c), orpiment (o), realgar (r), weddellite (we).

The results suggest that the illustration process involved three main steps: first, a preparatory drawing in red hematite; then the application of different colours and pigments in a specific order, with lighter tones first and darker shades last; and, finally, the addition of a black contour line based on amorphous flame carbon. This illustration sequence, developed during the New Kingdom period and extensively applied to mural paintings, was clearly used in papyrus illustration as well.

It was also revealed that the main pigments used in the Champollion papyruses came from standardised sources and were part of the ancient Egyptian palette, including blue cuprorivaite, yellow orpiment and red hematite and cinnabar. The presence of cinnabar (and of lead white to colour the arms of the deceased) in the coloured illustrations of the two papyrus fragments suggests they date from the Ptolemaic period.

Beside the standardised procedure, it was also demonstrated that the use of pigments was freely adjusted depending on the element to be coloured, with different mixes and associations depending on the wishes of the artist. To this end, the red colour used in the illustrations was found in at least three different instances, with the proportions of red hematite, red cinnabar, and white gypsum or lead white varying depending on the region coloured, thus providing a whole palette of different reddish shades.

This study highlights the subtle balance between standardisation and creativity in the colouring process of the Champollion papyruses, with craftsmen using specific pigments and mixes to create various shades, and the artist's touch also apparent in the drawing of the final contour. These results improve our understanding and appreciation of the techniques used to produce the illustrated Book of the Dead in ancient Egypt.

Principal publication and authors
Illustrating papyrus in Ancient Egypt, P.-O. Autran (a,b), C. Dejoie (a), C. Dugand (c), M. Gervason (c), P. Bordet (b), J.-L. Hodeau (b), M. Anne (b), P. Martinetto (b), Sci. Rep. 13(1), 524 (2023);
(a) ESRF
(b) Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, Institut Néel, Grenoble (France)
(c) Musée Champollion, Vif (France)

[1] P.-O. Autran et al., Anal. Chem. 93(2), 1135-1142 (2021).