Se­crets of an­cient Egyp­tian writ­ing re­vealed in 2,000-year-old pa­pyrus scrolls

Tehran Times - - HERITAGE & TOURISM -

The black inks that an­cient Egyp­tians used for writ­ing on pa­pyrus texts were made, in part, of metal. A col­lab­o­ra­tion of in­ter­na­tional re­searchers re­vealed for the first time that de­spite hav­ing their ori­gins vary across time and space, an­cient Egyp­tian pa­pyri con­tained ink that shared a lit­eral com­mon el­e­ment: cop­per.

Re­searchers used texts from the Pa­pyrus Carls­berg Col­lec­tion, Uni­ver­sity of Copen­hagen, which they di­vided into two groups. One com­prised pri­vate pa­pers of a sol­dier named Horus who was sta­tioned at a mil­i­tary camp in south­ern Egypt. The camp, Pathyris, fell to civil war in 88 BC.

The texts re­cov­ered from the ru­ins date to the late 2nd and early 1st cen­turies BC. The sec­ond group comes from the Teb­tu­nis Tem­ple Li­brary, which re­mains the only known ma­jor an­cient Egyp­tian li­brary to sur­vive to the present day. The re­searchers se­lected from sev­eral hun­dred pa­pyrus manuscripts and frag­ments from the 1st to 3rd cen­turies CE.

The team stud­ied the ink’s chem­i­cal makeup us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of three tech­niques: lab­o­ra­tory XRF point anal­y­sis, Ra­man spec­troscopy, and scan­ning elec­tron mi­croscopy-en­ergy dis­per­sive X-ray spec­troscopy, con­ducted at the Euro­pean Syn­chro­tron Ra­di­a­tion Fa­cil­ity in Greno­ble, France. A pa­per de­tail­ing the re­search was pub­lished in the sci­en­tific jour­nal Na­ture.

De­spite their dis­tance in time, space, and so­cial con­text,” the re­searchers wrote in the pa­per, “the study con­cluded that the black inks of Pathyris and Teb­tu­nis re­vealed sim­i­lar traits and that—be­sides car­bon ink—two other dis­tinct types of black ink were used for at least a pe­riod of 300 years: lead-con­tain­ing car­bon ink and cop­per-con­tain­ing car­bon ink.”

Pre­vi­ous re­search has shown that cop­per was the pre­ferred al­loy of an­cient Egyp­tians for a va­ri­ety of pur­poses un­til the in­tro­duc­tion of bronze (which is harder). The cop­per it­self was com­posed of three main com­po­nents: cuprite, azu­rite, and mala­chite. The re­searchers noted in their pa­per that all three were found at nu­mer­ous lo­ca­tions up and down the eastern desert and the Si­nai, and that they were also used to cre­ate blue- and green-hued inks.

“Sim­i­larly, Egyp­tian kohl or black eye paint, which is closely re­lated to the man­u­fac­ture of lead-con­tain­ing car­bon inks, was pro­duced in work­shops, where vit­re­ous ma­te­ri­als were ma­nip­u­lated,” the pa­per con­tin­ued.

The the­ory is fur­ther sup­ported by the fact that the fa­mous “Egyp­tian blue”—the much-mythol­o­gized dye that’s one of the old­est ar­ti­fi­cial pig­ments known to ex­ist—was also man­u­fac­tured from cop­per byprod­ucts. The re­searchers wrote that they be­lieve their work will drive for­ward dis­cus­sion of the many re­main­ing un­known vari­ables of an­cient Egyp­tian writ­ing; the log­i­cal next step might be to an­a­lyze the pens.

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