Pigments and Inks Typically Used on Papyrus

This is the third blog post on the Museum’s extraordinary New Kingdom papyrus, the Book of the Dead of the Goldworker Amun, Sobekmose.  My colleagues previously posted blogs on what exactly papyrus is, how it was made and formatted into a Book of the Dead, and our experiments making it ourselves in the Paper Conservation Lab.  Today I’m going to take a look at the materials which were used to write on and illustrate papyri.

The two most common pigments seen on papyri are black and red.  The black ink you see most often is used for writing the letters of the hieroglyphs or hieratic text and is almost always a carbon black ink.


Fragment from the Book of the Dead of the Goldworker Amun, Sobekmose.  New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, ca. 1479-1400 B.C.E.  Ink and pigment on papyrus.  Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1777E.

The ink is made by burning organic materials such as wood or oil, and then pulverizing the material before mixing it with water.  To keep the particles from clumping together, the black is mixed with a binder, probably a plant gum from the Acacia tree family.  As a valuable source of timber in Egypt, its branches may have also been used as the source for the charcoal.  As well as keeping the carbon particles suspended in the water solution, the gum binder helps to keep the ink adhered to the papyrus surface.  This ink is very stable, does not fade, and does not deteriorate the papyrus below as some metallic inks can do.

Another predominant color seen on the papyrus is red, derived from the earth pigment iron oxide.  Like most pigments used in ancient Egypt it is made from a naturally-occurring mineral, rather than an organic material derived from living sources such as plants.  The mineral iron gives it its color.  The red was often used for rubrics such as titles and headings to distinguish them from the rest of the text.  In our Book of the Dead pictured above, they denote the beginning of spells.

The ancient Egyptians used reed brushes to write the text.  These brushes looked somewhat like brushes today and allowed the scribe to vary the thickness of the line.  They were held in a wooden (or sometimes ivory) palette which had a depression to hold the red and black inks.


Scribe’s Palette with 4 Reeds in a pen holder, #37.450E, Brooklyn Museum.

Later on in the Ptolemaic period, reed pens were used.


Wooden Board with Five Scribe’s Pens attached and Bound Together with a Small Piece of Linen, #37.451E, Brooklyn Museum.

The basic palette used to paint the vignettes, or illustrations, comprised a range of pigments either mined from the earth or extracted from minerals, including blue, green, black, white, red and yellow.   It is interesting to see that the vignettes are often painted in one color within an outlined area, rather than layered to create highlights or shading.


 In addition to naturally-occurring pigments, the ancient Egyptians are credited with making the first artificially made pigment, Egyptian Blue.


Detail and photomicrograph of Egyptian blue pigment, 2.7X magnification

Egyptian blue is a glass-like pigment which was made by heating together quartz sand, copper, calcium oxide, and an alkali such as natron, which was found naturally in the waters of Egypt.  This crystalline material is then ground into a pigment and is often referred to as blue “frit”.  It was often thickly applied and coarsely ground, visible under magnification, due to the fact that it appears paler the more it is ground.  The presence of Egyptian blue in our vignettes is indicated by recent analysis with x-ray fluorescence (see future blog post for more information on analysis).

On our papyrus, we see a green called malachite, a mineral pigment composed of copper carbonate.  This green was probably also used as a source of copper for Egyptian Blue mentioned above.


Detail and photomicrograph of mineral green pigment, probably malachite, 2.7X magnification

Interestingly the blues and greens on this papyrus have darkened over time and look almost black to the naked eye, but when viewed under magnification blue and green particles are visible, indicative of what these pigments originally looked liked.

The Egyptians also created an artificial green pigment, called a green frit, very similar in ingredients and manufacture to Egyptian blue.  Other green mineral pigments have been found on ancient Egyptian materials, including copper chlorides also familiar as the bright bluish green corrosion products seen on bronze metals, as well as mixtures of Egyptian blue with yellows to create greens.

The most common yellow found on Egyptian materials is a yellow ochre which is seen in the disc above the falcon and other yellow areas.  It is colored by iron-containing minerals and contains clay and silica.


Photomicrograph of yellow and red area below falcon’s eye, 1.6X magnification

It can be difficult to identify the pigments with certainty due to several factors including the difficulty in obtaining a viable sample and also changes in the pigments over time.  A description of our analysis of the pigments will be described in upcoming blog entries.


This post is part of a series by Conservators and Curators on papyrus and in particular the Book of the Dead of the Goldworker of Amun, Sebekmose, a 24 foot long papyrus in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection. This unique papyrus currently in 8 large sections has never been exhibited due to condition. Thanks to a generous grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, the entire papyrus is now undergoing conservation treatment. The conservation work is expected to last until fall 2011 when all 8 sections will be exhibited together for the first time in the Mummy Chamber. As each section is conserved, it will join those already on exhibition until eventually the public will see the Book of the Dead in its entirety.