Lead-based Inks Were Used as Driers in Ancient Egypt, Indicates New Study

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A new study conducted by the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), Denmark has discovered that lead compounds in red and black inks were present in the 12 samples of Egyptian papyri analysed by them. Papyrus is a material that was prepared in ancient Egypt and used for writing or making ropes.

As per a report in the Science Daily, the researchers were surprised to find these two elements in papyri. They believe that the inks were used for their drying properties and not as pigments.

Using advanced synchrotron radiation-based X-ray microscopy equipment, researchers investigated the red and black ink present in the 12 samples.

Speaking about the research, UCPH’s Thomas Christianse, an Egyptologist who is also the first author of this paper, said that papyri fragments are taken from the Tebtunis temple library and the inks that have both lead-based and iron-based compounds.

Sine Larsen, a Chemistry professor at UCPH and co-author of this study, informed that while iron-based elements are found in red inks, lead-based compounds are present in both the inks.

She added, “Since we did not identify any of the typical lead-based pigments used to colour the ink, we suggest that this particular lead compound was used by the scribes to dry the ink rather than as a pigment.”

This new study is significant in understanding the use of inks as driers in ancient times.

A previous study on 15th-century European oil paintings had given similar results. In that as well, the application of lead-based drying technique was discovered to make the paintings.

It is established that Egyptians must have discovered the drying properties of the lead-based compounds 1,400 years earlier than Europeans.

The report says that it has been established earlier that in Egypt, inks were used as early as 3200 BC to write text. Black ink was used to write the body while red ink was used as a highlighter, marking heading and keywords.