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Ancient Egyptian papyrus’ ink reveals its origin


Ink in ancient manuscripts can shed lighton how life was in those times. Scientists from the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), the Autonomous University of Mexico and the ESRF have discovered copper in Egyptian papyri, ranging from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD, indicating that the ink originated from the soot in glass and metallurgy workshops and mines.

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Horus was an Egyptian soldier stationed in the military camp of Pathyris, around 30 km south of Luxor, during the 1st century BC. During a civil war in 88 BC Pathyris was destroyed, but Horus’ private correspondence was preserved in a jar, albeit in pieces. Around 600km to the north, the ancient town of Tebtunis houses the only large scale institutional library known to have survived from ancient Egypt. The Tebtunis temple library contains papyri fragments from the first two centuries AD. The ink of these manuscripts could help scientists to piece together information about ancient times. Did they use the same formula in ink despite the different time and place? Could the ink help scientists match the fragments together in order to be able to read complete manuscripts? Could they even create a cartography of ink recipes?

With these questions, the international team of researchers came to the ESRF’s ID21 beamline looking for answers. Thomas Christiansen, Egyptologist and corresponding author, explains that “the chemistry of the black inks used in the ancient world has been only scantily studied so far, leaving gaps in our knowledge of one of the fundamental inventions in the history of civilization. This is why we came to the ESRF”.

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A piece of papyrus (left) and the X-ray fluorescence image of the same piece. In red, the concentration of copper. 

In combination to laboratory techniques, they came to the ID21 beamline, at the European Synchrotron, Grenoble, to analyse the composition of the papyrus and the ink, from the millimetre to the micron scale with micro XRF and micro XANES. Despite their distance in time, space, and social context, the researchers were surprised to find that the black inks of Pathyris and Tebtunis revealed similar traits. Marine Cotte, in charge of ID21, explains that “there is a strong presence of copper in all the samples that we see clearly in the micro XRF maps”.

These results suggest that the source of the copper compounds found in the black inks and along the fibrous structure are by-products of metallurgy, glaze and glass production, which provided the raw material (soot) for “refined” carbon inks in the ancient Mediterranean.


The team when they came to ID21 at the ESRF, back in April 2016. On the right, the samples. Credits: C. Argoud.

Conservation efforts

The team had hoped to find elements in their experiment to show differences between ink formulae from the two locations at two times in history, but unfortunately none of the four inks studied are completely identical and the micro XANES analysis on copper showed variations even within a single letter. “We don´t know why there are so many variations of copper”, says Christiansen, “but it could be because papyrus used to be humidified to study it, and that made the copper change its chemical state, or just because the environment has made it evolve over the centuries”.

The results will, however, help define future strategies of conservation. “This is the first time that copper has been detected in black inks from such an early period. Further understanding the nature of the inks used in Ancient Egypt is important, since, on the basis of the results, we can develop new and better methods of conservation that will ensure the longevity of these unique and fragile papyri”, concludes Thomas Christiansen.


Text by Montserrat Capellas Espuny


Christiansen, T.  et al, Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 15346 (2017). doi:10.1038/s41598-017-15652-7

Top image: A papyrus from the Tebtunis library. Credits: University of Copenhagen