Solving the Mystery of Ancient Ink Origins
In ancient times, scribes churned out documents — love poems, prayers, lawsuits — for clients who were illiterate or too busy to write. Although reams of the texts survive on papyrus, bark and parchment, the ingredients of the inks remain a mystery. Scientists, archaeologists, curators, historians and conservators are collaborating on testing these writings and crumbs of ancient pigments to unlock the ink recipes.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the conservator Yana van Dyke has been creating experimental inks from plant extracts, including oak galls, or swollen tissue on oak trees infested by wasps, to compare with those used on manuscripts. Hilary Becker, an assistant classics professor at the University of Mississippi who plans to join the faculty at Binghamton University in New York this fall, is completing a book titled “Commerce in Color,” about the ancient Roman pigment trade.
The Ancient Ink Laboratory, a collaboration between Columbia University and New York University, is using nondestructive techniques like micro Raman spectroscopy, microscopy and infrared photography to scrutinize inks on documents. The lab is also studying fermentation residues from winemaking that may have gone into ancient ink mixtures and crusts found inside ancient inkwells at the University of Michigan’s Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.
In poring over Roman texts, Ms. Becker has found references to indelible and invisible inks on the market, some of them highly valued, and complaints about adulterated ingredients and poor quality. In the fifth century, Roman law mandated that only emperors could write with prized purple ink made from charred seashells, for example. Anyone else who obtained this expensive dye would face the death penalty.
David Ratzan, the head librarian at N.Y.U.’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, said that no one is certain how soot and other charred ingredients in black inks were made and harvested. Pliny the Elder mentions that the “best kind” of black pigment “is adulterated with the soot from furnaces and baths, which is used for writing.”
All this new scholarship could be useful for experts authenticating manuscripts and for conservators trying to stabilize documents damaged by corrosive inks. Extracts in the formulas may also indicate where tree species once flourished and help identify the trade routes for ink products.
“It’s all part of a puzzle,” Ms. van Dyke said.