Fermented Urine Dye Discovered in One of the Oldest Illuminated Manuscripts

A mixture of urine and weeds has been discovered in the dye used on the stunning 1,500-year-old Byzantine text known as the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, one of the oldest surviving illuminated manuscripts of the New Testament. A recent analysis of the pigments revealed that fermented urine was used to create the purple color that the manuscript is famous for.

The manuscript is incomplete, but it tells the life of Jesus according to the gospels of Mark and Mathew. It dates back to the 5th or 6th centuries AD, and consists of 188 parchment sheets. The manuscript became famous due to the mystery of its purple color. Usually the Tyrian purple extracted from sea snails (Murex) was used to dye parchment sheets. However, in this case, the purple color was created with orcein, a natural dye extracted from the lichen Roccella Tinctoria, and processed with fermented urine.

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is famous for its purple color, which came from fermented urine

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis is famous for its purple color, which came from fermented urine (public domain)

According to Seeker, the analysis of the dye was carried out during the restoration project of the sacred text at the Diocesean Museum of Rossano. The restoration was aimed at repairing damage that occurred during the previous restoration attempts in 1917-1919, which modified the aspect of the illuminated sheets. This time, the manuscript was restored without using invasive procedures. They limited the intervention to stitching cuts, tears and small gaps. Moreover, they prepared natural dyes to repair damage to colors using recipes described in the Stockholm papyrus, a manuscript written in Greek c. 4th century AD, which contains 154 recipes for the manufacture of colors and dyes. They also used the X-ray fluorescence to rule out the presence of bromine, which is characteristic of the Tyrian purple.

“Even though early medieval illuminated manuscripts have been deeply studied from the historical standpoint, they have been rarely fully described in their material composition,” Marina Bicchieri, director of the Icrcpal’s chemistry lab said.

The restorers used dye recipes that came from the Stockholm Papyrus, otherwise known as the Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis (World Digital Library)

Using fiber optics reflectance spectra, the researchers discovered that the purple parchment of the codex contained a dye created with orcein (processed with fermented urine) and sodium carbonate, which was most probably the mineral natron, the same substance which ancient Egyptians used in mummification. An examination with the raman spectroscovy revealed that the red-mauve and violet shades discovered in the miniatures were obtained using an elderberry-based lake, which is the first known example of such a practice in an ancient illuminated manuscript.

The red-mauve and violet shades were obtained using an elderberry-based lake

The red-mauve and violet shades were obtained using an elderberry-based lake (public domain)

The Codex Purpureus Rossanensis was found in 1879 in the sacristy of the Cathedral of Rossano in Calabria, a region in southern Italy. The pages of the manuscript are filled with miniatures and Greek text written in silver and gold ink. According to the researchers, the volume is only a half of the original book. They suppose that the other part of the book, most probably two more gospels, was lost during the fire at the Cathedral of Rossano in the 17th century. It is now kept in the Diocesean Museum of Rossano collection.

Urine was used in many surprising ways since antiquity. As Bryan Hill, a writer of Ancient Origins, explained in his article:

”While today we flush or urine away without giving it a second thought, in ancient times it was considered a valuable commodity. Urine contains a wide array of important minerals and chemicals such as phosphorus and potassium. The Romans believed that urine would make their teeth whiter and keep them from decaying so they used it as a mouthwash and mixed it with pummis to make toothpaste. In fact, urine was so effective that it was used in toothpastes and mouthwashes up until the 1700s.

As far as the Romans were concerned, the best and therefore the most expensive urine on the market came from the country of Portugal.  It was supposedly the strongest urine in the world and thus, the choice for whitening teeth. Though most people today would decline the option of a urine-based toothpaste, it actually worked! This is because urine contains ammonia which is used in many household cleaners today. If you leave urine out in an open vat it turns stale and produces ammonia through interaction with the air. In Roman times, this was then used for laundry. Due to the ammonia content, urine was also important for the textiles industry, which was a booming trade during the Roman Empire. Often urine was used to bleach wool or linen and tan leather.”

Top image: Pages from the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis (public domain)

By Natalia Klimzcak

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