THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

Introduction

Discover how we care for the British Library’s Collections by following our expert team of conservators and scientists. We take you behind the scenes into the Centre for Conservation and the Scientific Research Lab to share some of the projects we are working on. Read more

25 August 2015

Challenging Scrolls

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As part of the Hebraic Manuscript Digitisation Project (HMDP), we are currently imaging 74 scrolls. These range in size from one smaller than a little finger to another a whopping 52.41m long – three times the length of the conservation studio. The tallest is nearly a metre with its rollers.

Esther scroll

CC by Esther scroll in decorative case (Add 11831)

We did a brief survey last year and realised some of the scrolls were very damaged, so we have spent another two months assessing each one individually. Even this was not a simple task. Many of the larger scrolls are also very heavy, so two conservators have worked together to make sure they were handled safely, using lots of weights as stops to prevent them rolling off work-surfaces. The parchment scrolls have been tightly rolled for a very long time and even looking at them has been a challenge, as they try hard to re-roll themselves unless held down securely.

Surface delamination

CC by Text was rewritten after surface delamination; plus insect damage and excreta (Or 4224)

What are they? As well as some fine large Torah scrolls on parchment, made for synagogue use, we also have a number written on leather. The most important of this group is the Kaifeng Torah, made in central China in the 17th century. Read more about it here

There are also much smaller scrolls made for personal or family use. In particular, we have quite a few Esther scrolls, and some with the ritual texts for the Passover meal. Most copies of Hebraic scriptures are unadorned, to focus attention on the religious texts, but scrolls for family celebrations may have decorative margins or full coloured miniatures. The smallest scroll, adorned with silver, was almost certainly an amulet as the script is too tiny to be easily read.

Tiny scroll text

CC by The smallest scroll. The finger appears huge in comparison to the tiny script. (Or 4670)

The survey showed that up to half of the scrolls needed some kind of conservation treatment. Many were quick tasks done during assessment (edge tears or broken sewing joining panels) to avoid having later to roll and re-roll the scroll yet again. However, a dozen of the scrolls needed a good deal of repair simply to get them through the digitisation processes safely, and were sent to the main conservation studio.

Crazed leather surface

CC by Sewing is too tight and the holes too close together. The leather surface is also crazed and inflexible in part. (Or 1462)

Many of the scrolls have integral rollers. We thought it safer not to repair these if broken, lest it give a false sense of security, though we never lift scrolls by the roller handles anyway, since so many are now frail. Even more fragile are the few scrolls that roll back into cases as the mechanisms now tend to stick. Thankfully, once digitised, these will be handled rarely.

Broken sewing

CC by Common damage: the sewing has broken and a tear has developed across the text. This must be repaired before imaging as handling will make it worse. (Or 4224)

The scrolls are made of rectangular panels of parchment or leather (often called membranes) joined end to end. We were surprised to find that the majority were linked only by long, crude running stitches of linen thread, but these joins had mostly remained intact. We understood this better when we found a pair of scrolls with joins of fine oversewing (possibly done by a seamstress, not a leather worker), where the thread had torn through the leather; the frequent holes essentially acting as a perforation strip.

Molten wax

CC by Evidence of use is carefully preserved; here molten wax has dripped onto the scroll. (Or 1463)

A few of the scrolls have protective silk panels stitched to the verso at the outer end and we also found four mantles. Our textile conservator, Liz Rose, is cleaning and repairing these to make them safe to handle and image. They will be boxed separately and available for display in the future. As part of the project, many of the scrolls will also be rehoused in custom-made boxes.

Damaged mantle

CC by An extremely damaged mantle; the silk lining is also split in many places (Or 13027)

Although our imaging technicians are well used to digitising oriental scrolls, as well as other rolled materials such as maps, we think this is the first time anyone has digitised such a large group of Hebraic scrolls. Conservators were involved early in the process of selecting suitable equipment. Although no Hebraic manuscript books have been scanned, we concluded that it would be safer and more efficient to scan some of the scrolls – though using the equipment unconventionally, without the glass sheet to flatten them. There was a full risk assessment before imaging began, and the imaging technicians received specialist handling training, including a requirement to work in pairs.

Marginal decoration

CC by Marginal decoration of an Esther scroll (Or 1047)

Hand coloured print

CC by Image printed on parchment and hand coloured. The printing block was probably generic, used to decorate many different texts, but is unusual for a Hebraic manuscript. (Or 13028)

Conservation’s role in the digitisation of the scrolls is now finished, but there is still several months’ work to be done on processing and stitching the images before everything is uploaded to our website. Meanwhile, you can view many of the books digitised during the project here: using “Hebrew” as the keyword.

Ann Tomalak, HMDP Phase 1 Project Conservator

06 July 2015

Under the Microscope with Magna Carta

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We recently held a very successful public event sharing our conservation work in preparation for the British Library Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. The exhibition marks 800 glorious years of Magna Carta since it was granted by King John of England in 1215. The conservation project involved removing six manuscripts from their frames and rehousing them for display. While they were out of their frames, the manuscripts were examined using various scientific techniques. High-resolution digital microscopy enabled incredible magnification of the iron gall ink and parchment which make up the charters. Here is a selection of the images captured of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106; one of the British Library’s two original Magna Cartas dating to 15 June 1215. Enjoy!

Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy

Magna Carta 1215

Magna Carta 1215 (Cotton MS Augustus ii.106) – one of four surviving original 1215 copies.

Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink has been used since the middle-ages and is found on many of our most treasured collections including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Magna Carta. The main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water. Overall the ink is in very good condition on this charter allowing us to appreciate the beauty in the detail of some of the intials.

Magna Carta 1215 detail  Iron gall ink at 20x

Iron gall ink at 30x

Iron gall ink at 150x

At high magnification we can see that some areas have experienced ink loss, but the Great Charter is still legible due to the remaining ink shadow left behind. Find out more about iron gall ink in a previous post here.

Magnca Carta 1215 detail right  Ink loss at 30x

Ink loss at 100x

Ink loss at 200x

Parchment

The parchment on which Magna Carta has been written is thought to be sheepskin. Parchment is an animal pelt which has had the hairs removed by liming or enzymatic action. It is then stretched and dried under tension creating a perfect writing surface with a thin opaque membrane. Below are some images showing damage to the  upper dermal layers of the parchment. Find out more about parchment here.

Magna Carta 1215 detail centre  Damage at 30x

Damage at 50x

Damage at 150x

CC by You can find out more about this charter on the British Library Magna Carta resource page.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)

25 June 2015

A CT Scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel

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A CT scan of the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book dating to the early eight century - has been published in a ground-breaking new book launched this week: The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, edited by Claire Breay, Head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Bernard Meehan, Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College, Dublin. Colleagues from Collection Care and Medieval Manuscripts took the pocket gospel to the Natural History Museum for CT analysis to understand the structure of the ancient gospel, which was found inside the coffin of St Cuthbert in 1104.

CT Team

CC by The British Library project team at the Natural History Museum. From left to right: Claire Breay, Flavio Marzo and Christina Duffy.

X-ray computed tomography (CT) is a non-destructive technique which creates 2-D cross-sectional images from 3-D structures. The St Cuthbert Gospel was scanned using a Metris X-Tek HMX ST 225 CT scanner with an operating voltage of 225 kV at the Natural History Museum.

To protect the gospel during scanning it was placed inside a custom-made phase box and then secured upright in a bespoke piece of polyethylene foam.

Placing the Gospel in a phase box

CC by The St Cuthbert Gospel was placed in a phase box which was secured in a piece of foam.

A facsimile of the gospel produced by Jim Bloxam and Kristine Rose was generously made available to the team during the CT scan. This enabled a direct comparison of materials known to be used in the facsimile with those unknown in the original St Cuthbert Gospel. Both volumes were placed inside the CT chamber on a precision rotation stage between an X-ray source and a detector.

Attaching the facsimile for CT scan

CC by The two copies were placed side-by-side in the CT chamber.

As the volumes rotated on the stage through 360⁰ a conical beam of X-rays took digital projections in 0.5⁰ increments. The CT image pixels are displayed in terms of their relative radiodensity allowing us to scroll through the image slices revealing the materials underneath the leather binding.

Checking the results onscreen

CC by The results were poured over in the lab. From left to right; Christina Duffy, Claire Breay, Nicholas Pickwoad and Dan Sykes.

The results were initally examined by the British Library team and Professor Nicholas Pickwoad, whose chapter in the new publication draws on the CT scan results and discusses how the central motif on the binding appears to have been made using a clay-like material, rather than gesso or cord as previously thought.

The St Cuthbert Gospel binding

CC by The St Cuthbert Gospel with raised plant-motif decoration examined under high magnification. 

Comparing the facsimileUnder the coverLeather cover

CT datasets contain vast amounts of information and samples can be visualised in many ways using various software tools. Drishti, which stands for vision or insight in Sanskrit, is an open source volume exploration and presentation tool. It allows volumetric data sets to be both explored and used for presentation of results.

Visualisation of the St Cuthbert Gospel

CC by A screen shot of the St Cuthbert Gospel as visualised in Drishti.

CT scanning can provide tremendous amounts of information on the condition and construction of books and their bindings. This level of detail is unavailable through visual examination and can often lead to speculation. More information about the project can be found over on the Medieval Manuscripts blog. The new publication, The St Cuthbert Gospel: Studies on the Insular Manuscript of the Gospel of John, can be bought in the British Library shop or ordered online.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)