Until recently, it was assumed that the ink used for writing was primarily carbon-based at least until the fourth and fifth centuries AD. But in a new University of Copenhagen study, analyses of 2,000-year-old papyri fragments with X-ray microscopy show that black ink used by Egyptian scribes also contained copper – an element previously not identified in ancient ink.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers shows that the Egyptians used carbon paints containing copper that had not been identified in the ancient ink before. Although the analysed papyri fragments were written over a period of 300 years and from different geographical regions, the results did not vary significantly:

“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,” says Egyptologist and first author of the study Thomas Christiansen from the University of Copenhagen.


The papyri fragments were investigated with advanced synchrotron radiation based X-ray microscopy equipment at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble as part of the cross-disciplinary CoNext project, and the particles found in the inks indicate that they were by-products of the extraction of copper from sulphurous ores.

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