Compositional and Micro-Morphological Characterisation of Red Colourants in Archaeological Textiles from Pharaonic Egypt

Molecules. 2019 Oct 18;24(20):3761. doi: 10.3390/molecules24203761.


When the imagination conjures up an image of an Egyptian mummy, it is normally one of a human body wrapped with undyed linen bandages. However, the reality was much more colourful, as shown by the set of red mummy shrouds and textile fragments from Pharaonic Egypt considered in this work. The textiles were subjected to scientific investigation with the main aim of shedding light on the sources of red colour and on the possible reasons for the different levels of colour fading. The red colourants were investigated using various non-invasive and micro-invasive approaches. The results pointed towards the presence of three sources of red colour, which, in increasing order of lightfastness, are safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), madder (Rubia spp.), and red ochre. Micro-morphological observations and elemental analyses also enabled some hypotheses to be formulated regarding the application of these colourants to the textiles. The results not only deepen our knowledge of dyeing technologies in ancient Egypt and shed new light on the function of red shrouds and textiles as part of the funerary practices of Pharaonic Egypt, but are also essential in planning the display and future preservation of these mummies and their associated textiles.

Keywords: Pharaonic Egypt; archaeological textiles; colour fastness; mordants; multi-analytical approach; natural dyes.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Carthamus tinctorius / chemistry*
  • Clay / chemistry
  • Coloring Agents / analysis*
  • Coloring Agents / classification
  • Egypt, Ancient
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Mummies
  • Rubia / chemistry*
  • Textiles / analysis
  • Textiles / history*


  • Coloring Agents
  • Clay