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Inks Models

Imaging behind glass (3/3)

Part 3: Carbon black, red earth,
and hyperspectral imaging

Carbon black and red earth

Carbon black is considered the most commonly used black ink in antiquity and the preferred ink when applied on a papyrus substrate. Essentially, carbon black ink is made of fine amorphous carbon particles dispersed in water with the help of a binding medium.

The most commonly used binding medium for ink production is gum Arabic, a natural gum produced from the trees of the Acacia species.

Gum arabic exuding from the Babhul tree (Vachellia nilotica).
Gum arabic exuding from the Babhul tree (Vachellia nilotica). Photo: Ashwin Baindur, Wikipedia commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Even though carbon black is today considered a widely available and relatively cheap colourant, this does not seem to be the case in antiquity. Several starting materials were used to create the valuable ink (or pigment) known in Latin as atramentum, including wood, fruits, resins, and bones. The process of pyrolysis to produce amorphous carbon particles was not considered trivial and according to literary sources, specialised workshops were organised for this purpose, as described by Vitruvius (De arch. 7.10):

A vaulted apartment is built like a sweating chamber, and is covered carefully with a marble facing and smoothed down. In front of it a small furnace is built with outlets into the chamber, and the mouth of the furnace is carefully enclosed so that the flame does not escape. Resin is placed in the furnace. Now the fiery potency burns it and compels it to emit soot through the outlets into the chamber. The soot clings round the walls and vaulting of the chamber. It is then collected and in part compounded with gum and worked up for the use of writing ink; the rest is mixed with size and used by fresco-painters for colouring walls.

Vitruvius, On Architecture, Book 7, Chapter 10 (translated by F. Granger).

Ingredients for carbon black ink

  • 5 g lamp black
    (Kremer Pigmente, n. 47250)
  • 5 g untreated gum arabic
    (Kremer Pigmente, n. 63300)
  • 30 mL distilled water

For the production of our carbon black ink, we used commercially available lamp black since we could not at this stage experiment with pyrolysis.

We worked with whole, untreated lumps of gum arabic to experience the process of grinding, taking turns until we got the desired result.

The grinding process was not particularly demanding and in about 10 minutes we were satisfied with the results.

We worked with a larger quantity than what was required for our recipe, starting with 25 g of gum which we dissolved in 150 mL of lukewarm distilled water. The dissolution of the powdered gum in water with the aid of a hotplate was a relatively easy and fast process.

Glass container with gum arabic dissolved in water. The liquid is transparent yellow and small brown pieces are observable (impurities from the tree).
Untreated gum arabic solution (photo AKM).

We noticed that in contrast to the powdered material purchased from the same supplier that we used for the manufacture of iron gall ink (part 2), the untreated lumps of gum arabic enclose small pieces of bark or other foreign material, which we decided to remove using a coffee filter.

By mixing the gum arabic solution with lamp black, an intensely black ink was created.

A glass container with the carbon black ink.
Carbon black ink (photo AKM).
Despina Wilson testing lamp black ink on a white piece of paper.
Despina testing lamp black.

Finally, we used a commercially available red earth, consisting of a mixture of iron oxides (Terra Ercolano, Kremer pigmente, n. 41600) for the red ink. To produce our ink, we simply mixed the powdered mineral iron oxide with gum arabic and water.

Red earth (powder) before mixing with gum arabic and water.
Mixing red earth with gum arabic solution (photo: AKM).
Testing the ink on white paper by writing down "terra ercolano" and drawing lines.
Testing the inks (photo: DW).

Hyperspectral imaging

Our mock-ups were now ready to measure!

The instrument we used was a portable hyperspectral scanner from Speccim IQ, covering the VNIR region. This was mounted on a tripod, and we made sure that the geometry was at around 45-degree angle.

One person is standing behind the hyperspectral imaging camera and another is holding a digital camera and looking at the screen.
Tia checking the imaging setup and Despina taking photos.

The light source was halogen lamp (200 watts) and the temperature rise was measured with the use of a thermal camera.

The screen of the thermal camera pointing towards the lamp.
Photo of the hyperspectral camera's screen, showing two glassed papyri mock-ups and a white balance target against a black cloth.
Seeing through the camera: the hyperspectral imaging setup with our mock-ups placed behind glass.

We are currently working on the first results and preparing the second phase of this study, which will include different types of glass.

Stay tuned for updates!


Many people contributed to this pilot study, whom we would like to thank:

  • Hilda Debora and Riestiya (Tia) Zain Fadillah from the Colourlab (NTNU), who set up the hyperspectral imaging experiment.
  • Anastasia Maravela (IFIKK, UiO) and Federico Aurora (UB, UiO), who kindly lend us spare glass frames.
  • David Grimaldi (who is currently completing his MA thesis at IFIKK) and Despina Wilson (artist) were extremely helpful throughout the experimental session.

By Ariadne_Marketou

Ariadne Kostomitsopoulou Marketou is a postdoctoral researcher in the project “EthiCodex.” Her research revolves around the materiality of the codex, viewing it as a medium to approach provenance and dating. Ariadne received her PhD in Archaeology and Conservation from the University of Oslo and holds a MSc in Protection, Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art and a BSc in Chemistry from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her broader research interests include materials analysis, the materiality of colourants, pigment manufacturing technology, and the organization of craft production in the ancient Mediterranean world.

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