The British Museum on Pigments and Fading in the Book of the Dead

Egyptological Colloquium 2009 - Richard Parkinson & Bridget LeachThe Egyptological Colloquium 2009, held on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, saw a glut of eager experts propose dozens of theories on the making, scribing and significance of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. Some were more in-depth than others; some were downright inaccessible to all but the longest-serving Egyptologists. But one lecture that really caught the eye was the British Museum‘s very own Richard Parkinson and Bridget Leach‘s talk, on the colours and pigments which went into making the Book of the Dead such a technicolour masterpiece. In particular, the pair and their BM collegues have researched their material using the museum’s famous Papyrus of Ani; research going on for over ten years.

Parkinson and Leach compelled the audience by exploring colours and pigments which went into making the Book of the Dead such a technicolour masterpiece

The lecture, to give it its full, scholarly title, is Creative Borders – observations on pigments and fading on the Papyrus of Ani. In particular the red and yellow pigments which went into making the Book of the Dead are explored – colours whose provenance and discovery provide some fascinating insight, into both the technical wizardy of the Egyptians and the detective work of modern times. As well as the expected use of red and yellow ochres, the arsenic pigments red-orange realgar and yellow opriment were also found. Added to these were also traces of red lead and cinnabar. The varying degrees of fading these materials underwent has allowed the museum to reveal where each pigment was used, and even to determine that the papyrus was made up of several separate rolls which were pre-bordered before going into production.

Parkinson and Leach then showed the audience how some of the subsequent joins were actually pretty shoddy, with plenty of mistakes visible on closer attention. It was then suggested that, rather than having a definite system of production, some papyri were pre-bordered where others weren’t. This lends weight to the argument that Book of the Dead production was far from a uniform, industrial affair. It was also particularly interesting to note how the Egyptians got their colours. As Parkinson explained, even the Greek historian Strabo noted that there were slave mines in Anatolia (modern Turkey), where workers would invariably suffer early deaths due to the bad air.

All this to draw in colour? You would have thought they could get their hands on some Crayola by then! Drs Parkinson and Leach really drew the eye with some stunning photos (not all too difficult when dealing with as beautiful an artefact as the Papyrus of Ani), and their assertions really got the applause they deserved.

Images by Ann Wuytsand Lenka P.