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Unravelling the mysteries of textile inks in ancient Egypt

Textiles from the tomb of a royal architect of ancient Egypt could tell us how ink technology developed, from marking fabric to writing text on papyrus and parchment later on.

Scientists used ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS) to examine linens found in an ancient Egyptian tomb, to investigate what the inks used to mark the textiles were made of without any damage to the materials that dated from the 15th century BCE.

The team, led by Dr Giulia Festa from Centro Fermi in Italy, found that the inks used to mark the fabric were linked to a kind of ink previously thought to have been used for the first time 12 centuries later, unveiling the role textiles played in the development of ink for the first time.

Dr Festa said: “This research places the use of metallic inks in Ancient Egypt for the first time, which provides us with new information about the origins of inks in ancient Mediterranean cultures.”

The team used a number of non-invasive techniques at ISIS, to investigate enduring inks found on textiles. The results showed that the ink was likely to have been iron-based. These inks consist of a colour-producing component (iron oxides), a secondary colour component (manganese oxide) and the base carrier of the colour (earth). They classified it as an iron salt ink – but the corrosion in the textiles found in the tomb suggests that another substance was added to the ink: tannins. The researchers draw comparisons with the black dyes used by Navajo Indians in North America in the early 20th Century.

Kha was an architect during the reigns of three pharaohs: Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III (around 1425-1353 BCE). In 1906, his tomb, shared with his wife Merit, was discovered undisturbed in the necropolis of Deir el-Medina near Luxor, giving archaeologists a complete view of what was buried with the couple.

Goods buried with Kha and Merit, now at the Museo Egizio in Turin, included wooden coffins and furniture, alabaster and metallic vessels, pottery, papyrus and numerous linen textiles. These textiles were the focus of scientists who hope to trace the development of inks later used on papyrus.

The textiles found in Kha’s tomb included eight loincloths and ten tunics, and the loincloths showed signs of having been worn during Kha’s lifetime. At the edges of the fabric were ink inscriptions, signifying the owners of the garments to laundries – and the ink needed to be durable enough to survive the scrubbing and immersion in water of the ancient textiles. Now, the inks’ appearance is brown and it seems to have corroded the linen fibres.

The neutron techniques available to the researchers at ISIS are ideally suited to investigating archaeological samples because they are non-invasive and non-destructive, allowing the investigation of ancient and irreplaceable artefacts. The instrument used, Imaging and Materials Science & Engineering or IMAT, is a neutron imaging and diffraction instrument used to investigate materials for sectors including aerospace and transportation, energy storage, palaeontology and cultural heritage

Dr Joe Kelleher, beamline scientist for ISIS’ IMAT instrument, said: “Neutrons are able to penetrate thick samples without damaging them, and provide information ranging from the bulk structure right down to the individual elements that are present. The technological capabilities of different historical eras can be difficult to infer from surviving written records, and this type of forensic analysis is often the only way to study them.”

This research was published in Scientific Reports and can be read in full here


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Last updated: 15 August 2019

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