Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


Black plant ink

This is the type of ink used in the oldest papyri (5th Pharaonic dynasty) and it was still in use during the Arabic period (9th-10th century AD). The ingredients were two: lampblack (soot) and gum arabic. The two components were mixed together and then solidified into small cakes, which could be broken, ground and dissolved in water. The color is opaque black and it remains unaltered since no chemical reaction takes place in the ink.

Black mineral ink

Of more recent invention, from 6th century BC (the Aramaic Palestinian ostraca from Lachish). It was made from oak-gall (excrescence which forms on the leaves), vitriol (sulfuric acid), gum arabic and sometimes glass dust. The oak-gall was crushed and left to macerate in water, then boiled in order to completely break down the plant fibers. To this substance vitriol was added, which combined with the tannic acid of the oak-gall and turned the liquid black; gum arabic was added to fix the mixture and glass dust was added to make it brilliant.
When used, the color is a brilliant black, which however tends to fade with time to a dark brown. The metal it contains, in fact, oxidizes and develops acids which can corrode the surface on which the ink is used, sometimes even forming holes. This type of ink works very well on skins, where plant ink adheres badly; for this reason, mineral ink developed alongside the parchment.

Other colors

Many other colors were used besides black, even if their use was always extremely limited (titles, important passages, drawings and miniatures). Red was produced by mixing mineral pigments (cinnabar, red ochre or minium, lead oxide) with gum arabic. Blue was produced by mixing indigo (plant extract from indigofera plants, leguminous plants which grow all over Africa) with gum arabic. In the Byzantine and medieval periods, gold (gold dust + gum arabic) and silver (silver dust or salts + gum arabic) began to be used in a fairly limited way (titles, initials, miniatures). The Teodulf Bible, held at the National Library of Paris, is known for its writing in gold ink (titles and incipit) and silver (body of the text) on purpurin parchment.

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last update: 2017-05-19 15:10:28