The ancient Egyptians were masters in the art of textile dyes, so much that they created an actual manual, called Holmiensis papyrus or Stockholm code. The manual, discovered by chance in 1828, close to Thebes, dates back to the 3th Century B.C. Left ignored for years, in the 19th Century it was donated to the Royal Academy of Stockholm, from which derives the name. It could be considered as a first chemistry manual, in which are explained, among the others, recipes of mordant and dyeing of fabrics. Translated in 1906 by the philologist Otto Largercranz, who brought to light 70 recipes of textile dyeings and colour obtaining techniques.

The cult of color

In ancient Egypt was associated with color, translated with the word iwen, that also means character, nature, an actual cult.. In fact,it was believed that the colors belonging to each thing defined its essence. Through painting, Egyptians assigned a specific pigment to every reproduced subject, in order to communicate the wanted significance.

For exemple, Osiris was depicted with green skin, to indicate his influence on vegetation and fertility. Also called The Big Green, was associated with him the cult vegetans Osiris, a funeral rite that symbolized the death of vegetation and its successive rebirth during spring season.

The colors of Ancient Egypt
  • Red. It had two meanings, it expressed life and victory or indicated the evil. Kermes red, made from Coccus Ilicis, an oak tree parasite, and Tyrian Purple, coming from the shellfishe of Murex or Purpuria species, were of animal origin. With dried roots of Rubia tinctorum, was made the madder red, while the most widespread, red ochre, was obtained from the ocher collected during the long trips to the desert.
  • Blue . It symbolized the sky, the water and the life. Indigo blue, was extracted from Isatis Tinctoria, a plant known as woad, left to ferment and oxidate. Egyptian blue, instead, considered as the first synthetic pigment, was obtained from cuprorivaite, glass and quartz.
  • Yellow. The best yellows were produced from the processing of saffron stigmas (Crocus Sativus) and from the powdered rhizome turmeric (Curcuma Longa). Other yellows were obtained from yellow ochre ,of which they had great availability, and from gold, a pigment with which were painted the gods, symbol of eternity.
The Mordants

The most used fabrics in ancient Egypt were linen, that grew easily on the banks of the Nile, and cotton. Less frequently, garments were made, instead, in sheep wool, that didn’t find appreciations, as the fabrics of animal origin weren’t considered pure. Woolen clothes, in fact, were never used for burial and those who wore them weren’t allowed to enter the temples.

The technique used to dye the fabrics was the one of mordants, that consisted in boiling the fabric together with a metal salt that acted as a mordant allowing the pigment to attach to fibers. The most used mordant in ancient Egypt was potassium alum, of which the territory was rich. For the mordants of linen, instead, were often used urine and lemon juice, besides other plants. After a long boiling, the dyeing technique ended with the adding of a pigment and the mixing for a long time in order to uniform the color.