THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Collection Care blog

13 posts categorized "Parchment"

12 September 2016

Job Opportunity - Digitisation Conservator (Hebraic Digitisation Project)

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Digitisation Conservator (Hebraic Digitisation Project)
Salary - £26,000 to £29,966 per annum
Full Time, Fixed Term for 30 Months (2 ½ Years)
British Library, St Pancras site, London

Acknowledged as one of the finest and most important in the world, the British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts collection is a vivid testimony to the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities spanning over 1,000 years. The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation project, started in 2013, is continuing into a next phase making more of the British Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts available online.

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to undertake conservation treatment of paper and parchment Hebrew Manuscripts to enable digitisation and in order to improve the longevity, stability and accessibility of these items. The conservator will work closely with the project manager and curators as well as the project survey conservator. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all activities undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects. A broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book/ paper conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required.

Closing date: 2 October 2016. Interview date: Week commencing 10 October 2016.
For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers vacancy ref: COL00983

05 September 2016

Growing a thick skin

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Camille Thuet, Parchment Intern at the British Library, shares her experiences working at the British Library Centre for Conservation so far this year. Parchment (noun): A stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal, usually a sheep or goat, and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times - Oxford dictionary

Camille opening a roll

2 February 2016 - First day

I'm very excited to start my 11 month internship here. The building is impressive and in every corner I feel like something is happening. I am very glad to be the first intern that will focus on a specialised material, in my case: vellum and parchment. The British Library is giving me a great opportunity to fill-in my knowledge and become a specialist. I am expecting to work on a broad selection of items from the collection which will present a range of conservation problems.

3 February 2016 – Meeting the team

Today I've met my two mentors, who will support me with my work: Zoe in the conservation studio and Paul for the science-based research projects. They are both passionate about their work and are keen to learn new things as much as I am. A lively and dynamic atmosphere emanates from the huge conservation studio. About 35 conservators are working there, 35 different personalities from various backgrounds. I feel this internship is going to be fascinating…

9 March 2016 - My first parchment challenge

When used as a book cover parchment needs to be flexible; the joints where cover and spine meet are repeatedly taking tension during handling. When there is material missing or weakness in this particular area, the cover is not protecting the text-block any longer and handling can create damage. The infill material must be flexible, strong, toned to match the original aged hues of the cover, and have a similar surface finish with parchment. Many tests were needed to find a Japanese paper which looks like the perfect answer.

Using a conservation pencil  Cover released and ready for treatment

Cover is going to be reattached to text block  Opening after treatment
Top left: Using a conservation pencil to release the lace-in. Top right: The cover released and ready for treatment. Bottom left: The cover about to be reattached to the text block. Bottom right: The opening after treatment.

Before treatment

After treatment

The book spine before and after treatment.

18 May 2016 - A big project!

I am thrilled to be working on a book from the 13th century. Its pages are ancient parchment and its cover is a reminder of the volume’s passage through time. Everybody can have access to this seminal text by Cicero online today but particularities of this include the handwritten margin-notes by scholars from various periods in history. The parchment text-block has survived many readers from Italy to England and is heavily damaged: losses, tears, iron gall ink corrosion, and a myriad of previous treatments but to name a few.

This book is holding mysteries: the lower part of the first twenty pages has been cut off for no obvious reason. It is not unusual for an 18th century’s restorator to collect parchment from a book to repair a more valuable parchment document, but 20 pages… really? Could this be an old mould treatment? Or, censorship of Middle-Aged notes or drawings?

Detail 20 pages cut off 

Left: Detail from a 13th century book. Right: 20 pages mysteriously cropped!

The 18th century binding only allows me to open the book 45° which makes it almost impossible to read, and future handling perilous given its actual condition. One of my tasks is to prepare the fragile book for digitisation so that we can share its mysteries with the world. I have come to the difficult yet essential decision to disband the book and I am supporting the most vulnerable areas before the imaging process by using gelatine remoistenable tissue. The Japanese paper used has been toned with airbrush-sprayed acrylics. Indeed, the result on the image must disrupt the visual appearance as little as possible so as to influence future interpretation as little as possible.

Manuscript with 45 degree opening  Disbinding the manuscript

Left: Manuscript with a 45° opening. Right: Disbinding the manuscript.

2 June 2016 – A wall of rolls

A parchment document feels always more relaxed when conserved flat but large documents which can’t fit on shelves would usually be rolled. The British Library has a large collection of scrolls and rolled documents which are in need of some bespoke storage. A tightly rolled skin becomes cockled, distorted and loses its surface coherence which causes severe repercussions on the media. Won’t it be a massive loss if all the gold sheets of an illuminated document are flaking-off? For a roll parchment, the bigger the core, the better! This means items need big cores as support and ingenious storing and boxing systems accordingly. The challenge is to marry this with the constant fight for space under Euston road!

A wall of rolls

My aims for this project are to assess the collection, prioritising heavily damaged items for conservation treatment and reorganise the collection storage conditions… not too hard then!

26 July 2016 – Half way already!

When I first stepped into the studio I wasn’t a parchment specialist. I am still not quite there, but… I am becoming confident with this complicated material by meeting specialists, attending workshops, conferences and treating a unique collection of parchment objects.

To be continued…

Camille Thuet

27 April 2016

Opportunity: Digitisation Conservator

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Salary range is £26,000 - £29,966 per annum
Full time (36 hours per week)
Fixed Term Contract for 18 months
St Pancras, London

The British Library is undertaking a number of new digitisation programmes including four hundred pre-1200 manuscripts and illuminated manuscripts and Kings Topographical maps. The ‘Discovering Literature’ web resource is also moving into its next phase requiring items to be digitised. 

This is an opportunity for an experienced conservator to undertake condition assessments and conservation treatment of paper and parchment books and manuscripts to enable digitisation as part of these and other projects. The conservator will work closely with the project managers and curators and will report to the Conservation Digitisation Manager. You’ll operate with minimal supervision and have the skills and knowledge to plan, manage and track your work to ensure that deadlines are met. You must be able to communicate effectively with people at all levels, and be able to keep clear, consistent and accurate records of all activities undertaken.

You need to have either a degree in conservation or equivalent knowledge and skills sets, and practical hands-on experience in conservation of library materials for digitisation and/or large-scale conservation projects. A broad knowledge of available conservation treatments within the field of book/paper conservation together with the ability to diagnose conservation problems and to develop and evaluate options for solutions. You should also have a high level of manual dexterity, together with knowledge of materials chemistry and the properties, behaviours and interaction of a wide range of organic and inorganic materials. A good knowledge of preventive conservation issues is also required.

For further information and to apply, please visit www.bl.uk/careers quoting vacancy ref: COL00841

Closing Date: 12 May 2016
Interview Date: week of 23 May 2016

23 October 2015

Magna Carta Conservation Team at the ICON Awards

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The British Library conservation team that worked on the Magna Carta project attended a glamorous awards ceremony at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers last night. The team were shortlisted for the Institute of Conservation (ICONAnna Plowden Trust Award for Research and Innovation, which went to Tate for their impressive Rothko Conservation Project. A huge congratulations to the Tate team and to the Imperial War Museum who were also in our category for their amazing space vacuums, air bazookas and duster drones project in the War Against Dust.

Magna Carta Conservation Team

Left to right: Cordelia Rogerson, Christina Duffy, Gavin Moorhead, Julian Harrison

The Magna Carta Project was a collaborative process of sophisticated research and innovation that enabled a pragmatic solution for rehousing and displaying an iconic document. Our biggest challenge was overcoming long held preconceptions and expectations that a high profile artefact required an expensive high-tech approach. You can read more about our work here.

ICON Awards 2015

It has been a great privilege to work with Magna Carta and the curatorial team in the build up to the British Library's most successful exhibition Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy.

Many thanks to all colleagues across the British Library and other institutions who helped progress the project into something we are all very proud of. Thanks to ICON and their sponsors Beko for organising a terrific night celebrating an incredible range of conservation work going on around the UK.

Congratulations to all the entrants, shortlistees and winners!

Christina Duffy

21 October 2015

Parchment Internship at the British Library

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Intern, Parchment Research & Conservation, British Library
British Library job reference 00476
11 month Internship, 36 hours a week (full time), London

The British Library is pleased to offer a funded Internship, concentrating on parchment research and conservation. The internship is funded by the Clothworkers Foundation. The internship will run between November 2015 and October 2016. This opportunity is available to conservators who have graduated in the last 2 years, have limited work experience in conservation, and who wish to develop their research and practical, hands-on conservation skills. The successful candidates will have a book or paper conservation qualification(s) (an MA in conservation would be desirable).

The internship has a bursary of £19,000 with a £2,000 bursary for training and associated travel costs. The bursary will be paid on a monthly basis (subject to tax and NI). The internships are open to those who have the right to live and work in the UK.

Parchment under raking light

Parchment under raking light (Add MS 33597)

The intern will spend approximately half their time working on one or two parchment research projects, supervised by a Conservation Scientist. The projects will be agreed and defined with the aim of practical outcomes for parchment assessments or treatments. The remaining half of the internship will involve developing and implementing a range of treatment options for individual items or a small collection of items. This may include remedial treatment, collection surveys and environmental monitoring. Treatment reports will be written at the end of each treatment project. Projects will be based on material that has been scheduled into the 2015 –16 work programme.

The intern will be expected to use a project management framework and monitor their progress against their work plan. At the end of the internship, the intern will give a presentation of the work completed. Please note that the intern will be supervised by a British Library Scientist and a conservator throughout their internship and work will be monitored on a regular basis. British Library Conservation has some suggestions for parchment research projects and additional ideas are welcomed.

Parchment scroll

A parchment scroll (Add MS 32006)

Please apply online via the British Library website: http://www.bl.uk/careers/index.html

In addition to the application form online, you also need to provide two or three examples of treatment records from your portfolio for items you have worked on. This evidence only must be emailed separately to Cordelia.Rogerson@bl.uk by the vacancy closing date. Include your name and the vacancy reference number in the email (00476).

Closing date 8 November 2015. Please note that applications received after this date will not be considered. Interviews will be held the week commencing 23 November and 30 November.

Dr Cordelia Rogerson
Head of Conservation

25 August 2015

Digitising Hebraic 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)

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

09 October 2014

Burnt Cotton Collection survey enables digitisation prioritisation

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With the recent multispectral imaging of the burnt Magna Carta hitting the headlines following our blog post on the 800 year old Magna Carta revealing its secrets, there has been a lot of interest in the conservation work required to protect such items. The so-called “burnt” Magna Carta (Cotton charter xiii 31a) suffered fire damage in Ashburnham House in Westminster on 23 October 1731. This 1215 exemplification formed part of an exquisite library assembled by English antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton during his lifetime (1571-1631). Cotton’s library forms the basis of our collections at the British Library today, and a recent conservation survey of the burnt material has allowed us to categorise items based on their relative condition, enabling us to immediately identify items suitable for digitisation. This has vastly improved our workflow allowing digital access to a wider audience in a shorter time. 

This piece includes material from an article published by Taylor & Francis Group in Journal of the Institute of Conservation on 29 November 2013, available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19455224.2013.815122#.VFDzZvmsWtB.

Burnt Magna Carta

Burnt Magna Carta seal

CC by The burnt 1215 Magna Carta suffered fire damage and subsequent interventive treatment. The vulnerable wax seal of the charter melted and distorted in the intense heat. 

In the Ashburnham House fire a quarter of the manuscripts were either damaged or destroyed in the blaze, and attempts to extinguish it exacerbated that damage. The documents suffered shrinkage and distortion, bindings were carbonised, ink was lost, soot and dirt was ingrained, tide marks formed on the leaves, and parchment (animal skin) gelatinised. Gelatine is the brownish end-product of a rapid degradation of parchment collagen. Remedial work caused further damage with many of the manuscripts broken up and rebound during salvage. Incorrect reassembly impacted on the codicological history of many of the manuscripts. The darkened gelatinous material which formed along the edge of the parchment was trimmed away from some manuscripts. Unidentified fragments were gathered and put into drawers.

The collection was untouched until the establishment of the British Museum in 1753, where over the coming years invasive treatments were recorded. To separate the leaves which had glued together by gelatinisation, about 40 manuscripts were immersed in a hot aqueous solution (likely to be ethanol in water). Incisions along the parchment edges were made to allow the leaves to dry flat under pressure. Despite the efforts, leaves remained brittle and fragile. Inlaying of parchment fragments into paper was completed in 1856, but a huge number of fragments remained loose and unidentified. While the edges of loose fragments were protected by this inlaying method, over time the degradation of materials caused further concern. The brittle fragments were susceptible to break with every page turn, and acidic paper in heavy volumes tended to cockle preventing the volumes from closing.

Cotton Tiberius A XII

CC by Cotton Tiberius A. XII. Parchment fragments were attached to paper in the ninteenth century and incisions were cut along the sides to allow the leaves to lay flat.

Our conservators surveyed 243 items from the Cotton Collection, including 21 paper manuscripts. Items were graded on their physical, chemical and overall conditions based on an assessment of the state of the binding and parchment substrate, and thus rated for treatment priority.

Grade

Condition

CC by From Figure 2 and 5 in The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection in the Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013. Top: Results of the survey of 243 Cotton Collection volumes. Bottom: Pattern of damage where D (High degree of damage) accounts for 61% of the total items examined.

The nineteenth century treatments have been fundamental to the preservation of the Cotton Collection, and many items thought to be lost have since been rediscovered. The condition survey enabled us to quantify the damage and develop a strategy for the long-term preservation of the burnt Cotton Collection. Items identified as being fragile were immediately withdrawn from library use, while research to determine the best methods of stabilising and housing the items was undertaken. The use of analytical techniques such as near-infrared (NIR) spectroscopy for assessing the deterioration or parchment has enabled a better awareness of the nature and condition of these manuscripts. This information has helped to support the choice and realistic scope of conservation methods. In the case of the burnt Cotton Collection, the future project is now directed towards a preservation approach, including digitisiation and multispectral imaging, rather than an interventive conservation one.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina), Imaging Scientist

 

Further reading

The conservation of the burnt Cotton Collection, Mariluz Beltran de Guevara and Paul Garside, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 2013. Vol. 36, No. 2, 145 –161, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19455224.2013.815122

Collection Care fired up for BBC Four appearance, Christina Duffy: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/collectioncare/2013/08/collection-care-fired-up-for-bbc-four-appearance.html

Crisp as a Poppadom, Ann Tomalak: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/02/crisp-as-a-poppadom.html

‘Their Present Miserable State of Cremation' the Restoration of the Cotton Library, Andrew Prescott: http://www.uky.edu/~kiernan/eBeo_archives/articles90s/ajp-pms.htm

07 October 2014

800 year old Magna Carta manuscript reveals its secrets

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Ground-breaking multispectral imaging work of the British Library’s burnt copy of the 1215 Magna Carta has recovered text which has not been read in 250 years.

This work has been completed by British Library conservators and scientists in preparation for next year’s 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta. The so-called ‘burnt’ copy of the Magna Carta is one of four original manuscripts from 1215 which survive. In February 2015, the four manuscripts will be brought together for the first time in history for a special 3-day event, which will allow further academic study of them side by side, as well as the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for 1,215 people to view them together – you can enter our ballot to win your chance to be part of that event here.

Multispectral camera Colour image

Processed image

CC by Top left: The “Burnt Magna Carta” ready for multispectral imaging. Top right: A real colour image of a section of the charter. Bottom: A processed image of the charter enhanced to reveal text thought to be lost.

The British Library owns two of the original 1215 Magna Carta manuscripts (the other two are held at Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals). The story of the ‘Burnt Magna Carta’ (Cotton charter xiii 31a) held in our collections is a truly remarkable one of survival against all the odds. In 1731 it was damaged in the Cotton Library fire, and subsequently staff at the British Museum Library used 19th century techniques to try to flatten and mount it, which has contributed to its current condition today rendering the text very difficult to see.

The multispectral imaging of the burnt Magna Carta was conducted as part of a major project involving the reframing and scientific analysis of all the Magna Carta charters held in our collections ahead of the 2015 anniversary. The Collection Care team provided an initial examination of the original frames to determine their structure and composition. All original mounting materials in contact with the charters were tested using infrared spectroscopy, pH tests, and lignin tests to determine their stability and compatibility with new materials. Once the charters were removed from the frames, near-infrared spectroscopy and high resolution digital microscopy was used to investigate the condition of the ink and parchment as part of the overall condition assessment.

With the frames and glass removed there was a rare opportunity to employ the cutting-edge technique of multispectral imaging enabling us to virtually peel away the layers of damage currently affecting the manuscript.

Conservator Kumiko Matsuoka Conservation Scientist Dr Paul Garside

Conservator Gavin Moorhead Imaging Scientist Dr Christina Duffy
CC by Clockwise from top: Temporary housing is prepared to store the charter when removed from the frame; the original wooden frames are removed to enable access to the charter; the charter is released from the mounting; once the charter is free from the frame it can undergo condition assessment.

Burnt Magna Carta  Ink loss

CC by Left: The “burnt” copy of the Magna Carta, Cotton charter xiii 31a, is one of the four original manuscripts from 1215 which survive. Right: Much of the ink has been lost with only a few remaining initials (shown here at 50x magnification).

Multispectral imaging is a non-destructive, non-invasive imaging technique using different colour lights, including ultra-violet and infrared, to recover faded and lost text. A high-resolution camera is securely mounted directly over the charter, which is then illuminated with LED lights ranging from the ultraviolet at a wavelength of 365 nm, through the visible region, and right up to a wavelength of 1050 nm in the infrared region. The chemical composition of the material in the charter is varied (ink, parchment, etc.), and so reacts differently to the lights. We are able to see, and capture, additional information undetectable by the human eye.

CC by  An animated gif comparing the original colour and processed images. 

Ultra-violet colour image

CC by A colour UV image reveals regions of text which are completely faded to the naked eye.

Using this technology and expertise available to us in the 21st century, we are able to preserve the Magna Carta for the next 800 years and present these iconic documents in the best possible condition for visitors who come to see them during the anniversary year.

Multispectral data is still being processed and will be published along with other scientific data collected after the British Library’s exhibition ‘Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy’ which runs from 13 March – 1 September 2015.

You can see this Magna Carta manuscript alongside the 3 other surviving copies at the British Library on 3 February 2015 – find out more details and enter for your chance to win a place on www.bl.uk/magna-carta

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina), Imaging Scientist