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

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)

07 May 2015

Public event - Magna Carta: Under the Microscope

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We’re delighted to announce that the conservation team behind the work done on the British Library collections in our latest exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy will be speaking at a public event on Friday 26 June 2015 18:30 - 20:30 to share their findings. Speaking on the night in the British Library Centre for Conservation will be Head of Conservation Cordelia Rogerson, conservator Gavin Moorhead, conservation scientist Paul Garside and imaging scientist Christina Duffy. Book your place here.

Magna Carta Conservation Team

 CC by Join our project team of conservators and scientists on 26 June 2015.

The project spanned over three years in preparation for this year’s 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta and involved the reframing and scientific analysis of all of the Magna Carta charters held in our collections, including the two 1215 original versions.

Gavin Moorhead

CC by Conservator Gavin Moorhead works on the 1215 Articles of the Barons (Additional MS 4838).

The team undertook an initial examination of the original frames to determine their structure and composition. At the event you’ll hear how probes were manually inserted into the frames to take samples of the air inside in order to determine what kind of micro-environment the charters were living in! The stability and compatibility of new materials, which would be used for mounting in the new frames, was ensured using infrared spectroscopy, pH tests, and lignin tests.

Mounting colours

CC by Mounting materials were tested before incorporation into the new frames. Join us to find out what the blue and red colours indicate.

With the frames removed the team had a rare opportunity to investigate the condition of the manuscripts using near-infrared spectroscopy and high resolution digital microscopy. Unpublished images of the ink and parchment at up to 200 times magnification will be shared with the audience.

Magna Carta Under the Microscope

CC by What does 800-year-old ink look like at 200 times magnification? 

You will also delve deep into the exciting world of multispectral imaging and see versions of the charters and their seals under ultraviolet and infrared light. The incredible results of the text recovery project on the damaged 1215 Canterbury Magna Carta, from which much of the ink was lost, will be shared.

Once our tests were complete it was time to rehouse the charters – you’ll hear from our conservator Gavin Moorhead about the challenges and decisions required to mount for display one of the most recognised manuscripts in the world which would feature as the dramatic finale to the exhibition.

Magna Carta 1215

CC by The British Library's London Magna Carta at our exhibition, Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Don’t miss out on this great event and book your place now! We look forward to meeting you!

Christina Duffy