What is surprising is that the ink recipe is related to the pictorial practices developed many centuries later, during the Renaissance.
European scientists have managed to analyze, with new cutting-edge techniques, papyri from 1,900 years ago and have discovered that Egyptians used lead in the ink of their texts but not as a pigment, but for its drying properties, a technique that was subsequently popularized by Renaissance artists in Europe during the 15th century.
In ancient Egypt, Egyptians used black ink to write the main body of the text, while red ink was often used to highlight titles, instructions, or keywords.
The study, published in the scientific journal ‘PNAS‘, concludes that 1,400 years before the Renaissance managed to keep their writings not smudged with fresh ink at one time, the Egyptians already knew how to achieve it.
Hundreds of years before
The research, led by scientists from the European Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, and the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), reveals the composition of the inks of a dozen ancient Egyptian papyri.
These belonged to the library of the temple of Tebtunis, ancient Egypt, which is famous for its scientific and customs texts, with explanations of how its inhabitants lived.
“By applying 21st century, state-of-the-art technology to reveal the hidden secrets of ancient ink technology, we are contributing to the unveiling the origin of writing practices,” explains Marine Cotte, ESRF researcher and co-author of the work, in statements collected by Phys.org.
“Something very striking was that we found that lead was added to the ink mixture, not as a dye, but as a dryer of the ink, so that the ink would stay on the papyrus,” he adds. The researchers came to this conclusion because they did not find any other type of lead , such as white lead or lead, that should be present if it served as a pigment.
Furthermore, “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,” says Thomas Christiansen, an Egyptologist at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study.
The most surprising thing about the find is that the ink recipe is related to the pictorial practices developed many centuries later, during the Renaissance. “In the XV Century, when artists rediscovered the oil painting in Europe, the challenge was to dry the oil in a reasonable amount of time,” says Cotte. “Painters realized that some lead compounds could be used as efficient dryers.”