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Tuesday, May 17 • 2:30pm - 3:00pm
(Research and Technical Studies) Characterizing the Age of Ancient Egyptian Manuscripts through micro-Raman Spectroscopy

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The dry climate of Egypt has preserved thousands of handwritten documents and books, from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Ages, that can provide insight into our understanding of ancient cultures. Unfortunately, in most cases the dates of these manuscripts are unknown, although several document types bear precise dates, often to the day. For the undated manuscripts, the only current scientific method of estimating the date of writing is radiocarbon dating, but these measurements are destructive and cannot be practically used to date the media as separate from the support. In contrast, micro-Raman spectroscopy, a non-destructive light scattering technique, can be used to distinguish physical and chemical properties of materials. We have discovered that, for a study of well-dated ancient Egyptian papyri covering the date range from 300 BCE to 900 CE, the Raman spectra (25 to 40 measurements on each manuscript) of black ink all show the characteristic spectrum of carbon black materials. The spectrum of carbon black is characterized by two broad features, the G and D bands. The G band at 1585 cm-1 is a Raman allowed transition that arises from the E2g in-plane vibration of sp2 bonded carbon. The D band is a forbidden Raman transition that occurs when the lattice symmetry is broken. The D band at approximately 1350 cm-1 is associated with disorder, vacancies, crystalline edges, etc. The broad spectroscopic features are indicative of crystalline and amorphous carbon. We observed the carbon black spectra exhibit systematic change as a function of manuscript date. This observation is unexpected given the dates of these papyri cover a 1,200-year time span and the fact that each manuscript has a unique provenance, archeological, and storage history. We conclude that, over this time-period, black ink pigments in Egypt were manufactured using similar processes. We attribute the systematic change we observe in the Raman spectrum to two concurrent oxidation processes: slow oxidation of the crystalline carbon and faster oxidation of the amorphous carbon. The changes we observed are well characterized by models for carbon black Raman spectra that relate the relative intensity of the D to the G peak to defect density in accordance with oxidation. Oxidative degradation must proceed relatively uniformly over time to alter the Raman response of the material, providing a direct experimental indicator for manuscript age. Using this technique, we have been able to distinguish between the Raman spectra of different carbon-based manuscript inks on ancient Egyptian documents. Most importantly, this research establishes the basis for a simple, rapid, non-destructive method for dating ancient manuscripts from Egypt as well as the ability to differentiating between modern forgeries and authentically ancient manuscripts.

avatar for Sarah Goler

Sarah Goler

Postdoctoral Fellow, Columbia Nano Initiative at Columbia University
Sarah Goler received her Bachelor of Science degree at Columbia University School of Engineering and Applied Science in applied physics. She went on to complete a PhD at Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy, in condensed matter physics. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in... Read More →


Alexis Hagadorn

Head of Conservation for the Columbia University Libraries, Columbia University Libraries
Alexis Hagadorn is the Head of Conservation for the Columbia University Libraries, where she has worked as a rare books and special collections conservator since 1997. She received a Master of Science in Library Service and an Advanced Certificate in Conservation from Columbia in... Read More →

Angela Cacciola

Researcher, Barnard College, and Columbia Nano Initiative, Columbia University
Angela Cacciola graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Barnard, the women’s college at Columbia University. A natural, immersion learner, over the course of her postsecondary career Angela supplemented her coursework with diverse experiences at blueEnergy... Read More →

David Ratzan

Head Librarian of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University
David M. Ratzan is Head Librarian of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University. Before coming to ISAW he taught at Temple, Hofstra, and Columbia University, where he also served as the Curator of Papyri in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (2011-2013... Read More →

James T. Yardley

Executive Director of the Columbia Nano Initiative, Columbia Nano Initiative, Columbia University
James Yardley is currently Executive Director of the Columbia Nano Initiative and a member of the Electrical Engineering Department at Columbia University in New York City. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Rice University in 1964 and the PhD Degree in Physical... Read More →

Tuesday May 17, 2016 2:30pm - 3:00pm EDT
Room 511 B/E