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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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