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Color Technology in Ancient Egypt

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Today we consider chemistry to be a science, but its roots, back in Ancient Egypt, lie in art and the creation of synthetic pigments.

Our knowledge of Ancient Egyptian color technology comes from a handful of ancient papyri. The most important, held in the Leiden collection and known as Papyrus X, contains the recipes for making pigments. Another held by the Stockholm collection contains recipes for dyeing and making artificial gemstones.

Color Technology in Ancient Egypt Using Animal Products
Two basic colors were obtained from organic sources. White pigment was produced from crushed bone or ivory. Black was created from the soot produced by oil lamps (known today as lamp black, a rich velvety black) or by roasting crushed ivory (known today as ivory black, a warm, slightly brownish-black).

One of the first color innovations of Ancient Egypt was in the field of dyeing. In order to get a dye to 'fix' to fabric (or leather) you need to use a mordant such as alum (a sulphate of aluminum and potassium). Once the dyeing process is finished, the mordant forms a solid waste which also has the dye fixed to it. Powdered this waste material forms an excellent pigment type known as a lake pigment.

One of the main lake pigments used in Ancient Egypt was produced from the dried bodies of female scale insects (family Coccidae, genus Kermes). Kermes is vivid red color, known to us today as carmine.

Color Technology in Ancient Egypt Using Vegetable Products
There were two other important lake pigments used in Ancient Egypt: indigo and madder lake. Indigo, a dark blue color, was created from wode, a leguminous which has pods and root nodules, obtained in Asia. Madder lake was created from the fleshy roots of the madder plant obtained around the Mediterranean. Madder lake is a dark reddish-purple color, similar to the modern pigment Alizarin crimson.

Color Technology in Ancient Egypt Using Minerals
The majority of pigments in Ancient Egypt were derived from minerals, crushed and powdered for use with suitable binders such as egg yoke or tree gum. But the cost of some of these minerals was prohibitive. Lapis lazuli, for example, had to be imported over the Sinai Desert from central Asia, and was accordingly used for the most important images – as it would be in medieval times. Several of the minerals were also used for jewelry and inlay – especially lapis lazuli – while the turquoise pigment chrysocolla was also used to make an adhesive for gluing down gold leaf.

While many of the minerals were relatively inert – iron oxides such as red- and yellow-ochre, copper carbonates like malachite and azurite, as well as chalk and charcoal – several of the minerals were highly toxic, and artists didn't have modern protective gloves and dust masks to hand. Orpiment, which produces a bright yellow pigment, and realgar, which is an reddish-orange color, are both highly toxic forms of arsenic sulphide.

Color Technology in Ancient Egypt Part 2: Synthetic Pigments

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