X-ray diffraction reveals ancient Egyptian illustration methods

The ancient Egyptians used papyrus as a medium for communication and illustration, with the first illustrations appearing in the fifth and sixth dynasties (2500 – 2100 B.C.). Funerary documents, such as the Book of the Dead, flourished during the New Kingdom period as they were considered essential for entering the afterlife.

The Champollion Museum in Vif, France, holds a collection of 280 papyrus fragments, many of which show scenes from the Book of the Dead. The colours used in these illustrations are typical of the Egyptian palette and include blue, green, red, pink, yellow and white, with different characters and elements of the illustrations outlined with a black line.

Researchers from the ESRF and the Néel Institute CNRS/UGA in Grenoble, France, with collaborators from the Champollion Museum, worked together to gain a deeper understanding of the illustration processs used in ancient Egypt. A combination of optical microscopy, synchrotron X-ray powder diffraction, X-ray fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy was used to identify the pigments and their overall distribution.

Two of the papyrus fragments of the collection (PAP-6 and PAP-12) were examined on beamline ID22, where X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction experiments were carried out. Mixed Rietveld and Pawley refinement was carried out against the XRD data to quantify the fine fraction and to consider the heterogeneous microstructure of the pigments.

Read more on the ESRF website