The use of ink is almost as old as civilisation itself. For thousands of years, humans have been using ink to relay messages and document history. However, before history could be documented, ink had to be developed. Find out how ink was developed by three autonomous communities and how ancient ink paved the way for sophisticated, modern ink.


The use of ink dates back to around 2500 BC; that’s over 4500 years ago! Although records and documents are extremely sparse from thousands of years ago, physical materials – such as inks and paints – are easier to detect. The earliest black writing inks were made by mixing carbon, water and a natural gum. It is thought that many ancient cultures, independent of one another, formulated ways of creating a permanent writing and drawing material. Most of the information we have of ancient inks come from the inks themselves, rather than any information written about the inks.


Chinese inks can be traced back to the 23rd century BC. The Chinese are thought to have utilised natural plant dyes, animal products and minerals to create ink bases. They were then able to add permanent colourants to these materials, such as graphite, to create a lasting ink. After hundreds of experimental years, they created inks made from the resin of pine trees which were used to delicately paint and draw on silk and paper.


Indian ink dates from about the fourth century BC and was made in a different way to Chinese ink. Ancient Indian ink was made from burnt bones, tar and pitch. These dark, staining materials were used to write and draw in ancient India. It is thought that several Buddhist and Jain sutras were written in this composition of ink


The ancient Romans are known for being inventive and resourceful. Their ink was created using iron salts, tannin and a natural thickener. This ink was said to leave a blue stain, allowing the ancient Romans to compile documents and drawings of their civilisation. An alternate method of making ink, deriving from about 800 AD, is by using hawthorn bark. The bark is pounded, soaked and left to mature for eight days. It is then boiled until it turns thick and black before the final ingredient is added: wine. This makes for a smoother, more contemporary ink which can be written with more easily than ancient inks.


Modern ink formulations are rather more complex than their ancient predecessors. Although the ancient techniques paved the way for modern techniques and ingredients, they are no longer efficient or effective ways of making and using ink. In addition to the colour pigment, modern inks contain many other ingredients. These additional ingredients are known as the “vehicle” and include pH modifiers, humectants, polymeric resins, antifoaming agents, wetting agents, biocides and thickeners to control ink application. Also these ingredients have been developed and tested to aid ink use, colour and application. While we may no longer often write with ink, we use it in many different industries and for many different purposes.