What a pen and ink: X-rayed papyrus

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  • Published: Nov 15, 2017
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: X-ray Spectrometry
thumbnail image: What a pen and ink: X-rayed papyrus

Living in ore

This is a fragment from the Tebtunis temple library in the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection. Credit: University of Copenhagen

X-ray microscopic analyses of 2,000-year-old papyri fragments by scientists at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, has shown that the black ink used by Egyptian scribes was not comprised of purely carbon-based organic materials as previously thought but contains the metallic element copper not previously identified in such inks.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, a multidisciplinary team of researchers including Copenhagen's Thomas Christiansen used the advanced synchrotron radiation based X-ray microscopy equipment at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble as part of the cross-disciplinary CoNext project to analyse papyri fragments that inscribed over a period of three centuries from various different geographical regions. Despite the time period covered and the wide-ranging geography, the results did not vary significantly between fragments, the team reports. The particles found in the inks indicate that they were by-products of the extraction of copper from sulfurous ores.

Composition conundrum

"The composition of the copper-containing carbon inks showed no significant differences that could be related to time periods or geographical locations, which suggests that the ancient Egyptians used the same technology for ink production throughout Egypt from roughly 200 BC to 100 AD," explains Egyptologist Christiansen.

The studied papyri fragments all form part of larger manuscripts belonging to the Papyrus Carlsberg Collection at the University of Copenhagen. The papyri have two primary sources, the private papers of an Egyptian soldier called Horus. He was stationed at a military camp in Pathyris. The second source is the Tebtunis temple library, which is the only surviving large-scale institutional library of ancient Egypt.

Four inks

"None of the four inks studied here was completely identical, and there can even be variations within a single papyrus fragment, suggesting that the composition of ink produced at the same location could vary a great deal, Christiansen adds."This makes it impossible to produce maps of ink signatures that otherwise could have been used to date and place papyri fragments of uncertain provenance. However, as many papyri have been handed down to us as fragments, the observation that ink used on individual manuscripts can differ from other manuscripts from the same source is a useful insight as it could then facilitate the identification of fragments belonging to specific manuscripts or even small sections of them.

As with many such analytical studies, while there is a fundamental scientific reason for examining such artefacts, the examination also helps provide useful information for those carrying out conservation efforts. A detailed knowledge of the materials from which an artifact is made, modified and decorated can assist museums and collections in making appropriate decisions regarding how such an artifact is to be stored and preserved. Papyri are fragile and susceptible to changing environmental conditions. Ensuring their preservation and longevity is an important factor in this area of science.

Related Links

Sci Rep 2017, 7, online: "The nature of ancient Egyptian copper-containing carbon inks is revealed by synchrotron radiation based X-ray microscopy"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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