Asian and African studies blog

6 posts categorized "Digital scholarship"

27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

As the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) uploads its two millionth image this week, we’d like to celebrate the nearly 80,000 images of British Library Arabic scientific manuscripts that contribute to this achievement.

One of the most fascinating of these manuscripts and one of the oldest is a thousand-year-old fragment of a Christian Arabic miscellany in Or. 8857. Enhanced cataloguing facilitated by the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership has provided a glimpse of the scientific interests and texts available to readers in the monasteries of the Near East around AD1000 and also of the diverse communities that produced these manuscripts in monastic scriptoria. Creating a digital surrogate of this fragment for the QDL has also allowed us to virtually reorder its folios and even remotely reunite it with another, larger fragment from the same manuscript held in another collection.

 

Acquisition and condition

On 30 May 1921, the British Museum acquired five folios of a Syriac manuscript along with thirty-three folios of a very ancient Arabic manuscript from F.W. Bickel, an antiquities dealer in Zürich specialising in Christian oriental manuscripts.

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v]) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00004e
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When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

Off-white paper divided into three with small boxes on left and right and large one in the centre, all of which are filled with cursive text in the Latin alphabet in black ink
Entry for Or. 8857 in the British Museum acquisition register ( List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034, p. 275 [British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7])
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When the thirty-three paper folios that comprise Or. 8857 entered the British Museum, they were evidently in disarray. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that the folios arrived with a binding, but worse – the sewing that held the quires had disintegrated and the loose bifolia had broken apart along their spine-folds to become individual folios. At some point, probably shortly after their acquisition, all thirty-three folios were mounted on paper guards and sewn into a new binding with little regard to their original order but perhaps preserving the order in which they had arrived at the British Museum.

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00000b
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After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.

 

Date and context of production

The manuscript is written in a squat and angular script that has been described as ‘Kufic’. This script is now considered one of a loosely defined group of scripts generically called Abbasid Bookhand because they were developed in the early Abbasid chancery and employed for copying books on both sacred and secular topics from roughly the 3rd/9th to 5th/11th century. They were then replaced by the maghribī script in the extreme west of the Islamic world and by the naskh script almost everywhere else.

Apart from the manuscript’s archaic script and paper, other features help to define the time and place it was copied. Chief amongst these are its quire signatures, numbers that tell the bookbinder the correct order in which to bind the quires that make up a manuscript. In this manuscript two sets of quire signatures are found on the first and last folio of each quire. These quire signatures are written using two separate systems of alphabetic numerical notation: Greek and Georgian. The use of these two numeral systems alongside an Arabic text written in Abbasid Bookhand and featuring the distinctive punctuation marks displayed in this manuscript all attest to the collaboration of multi-ethnic and multilingual artisans in the Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian monastic scriptoria of the early Abbasid period. The particular combination of quire signatures found here, however, is most typical of the scriptorium of the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, especially during the late-4th/10th and early-5th/11th century.

Double page spread of manuscript on off-white paper with writing in Arabic script in black ink, with several features highlighted by red, green and blue circles placed over the text
Opening from the Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azmina), which displays a variety of punctuation and space-filling marks as well as Greek quire signatures (circled in green, Η = 8 right and Θ = 9 left), Georgian quire signatures (circled in red, Ⴆ = 7 lower right and Ⴇ = 9 upper right) and Coptic folio number (circled in blue, 𐋯𐋩 = 69) (British Library, Or. 8857, ff. 10v and 17r)

Or. 8857, ff. 10v: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00001e
Or. 8857, ff. 17r: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00002b
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Reordering the folios

The quire marks demonstrate that Or. 8857 is a fragment containing the remains of quires 5–9 of a larger original manuscript. But without putting the folios back in their original order, it would be impossible to know how much of each quire has survived. Luckily, each folio also has a number in its head margin. Although these folio numbers are likely to have been added somewhat after the quire signatures, they are early and they also attest to the multilingual context in which the manuscript was produced and consumed since they are written using the Coptic epact alphabetic numerals. The use of these numerals was not restricted to the Coptic community, and they are commonly referred to as ‘register letters’ (ḥurūf al-zimām) since they were favoured by merchants and administrators for use in their registers and account books.

Like the Arabic alphabetic numerals (ḥurūf al-jumal, commonly called abjad) – the numerical values of which happen to be explained on ff. 1v–2r of this manuscript – the Greek, Georgian and Coptic (zimām) alphabetic numeral systems all have a base of ten (unlike Roman numerals, which also have a sub-base of five) and they are additive (unlike Roman numerals, which also subtractive) rather than positional (like Arabic numerals). This means that to write the number 123 in alphabetic numerals, one does not write the letter representing 1 in the hundreds place, 2 in the tens place and 3 in the ones place as done with Arabic numerals. Rather, one writes the letters representing 100 (+) 20 (+) 3.

Table with first column and row in grey background with Greek letters in the central cells
Greek majuscule alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Georgian letters in the central cells
Georgian majuscule (Asomtavruli) alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Coptic letters in the central cells
Coptic epact or zimām numerals 1–900

Reading the Coptic (zimām) foliation along with the quire signatures, it becomes clear that Or. 8857 is a fragment of five quaternions (quires 5–9) comprising folios 37–71 of a larger manuscript of unknown extent. Quires 5, 6 and 8 are still complete with eight folios each, while quire 7 is missing the two folios of its inner bifolium, and only the first three folios from quire 9 are preserved.

Five schematic diagrams of thick or hatched blue lines forming concentric c-shaped items flipped so that they are open to the left
Visualisation of the original quire arrangement of the folios in Or. 8857. Historic Coptic (zimām) foliation at left and modern British Museum foliation in brackets at right. Note that the Georgian signatures for quires 7 and 8 are erroneously reversed. (Visualisation produced with Viscodex)
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Diverse monastic reading material

Once we know the original order of the folios, we can see that Or. 8857 contains a variety of texts on subjects more or less obviously suited to the monks of Monastery of St Catherine.

1) Fragment of a Christian prayer (f. 37r–37v [British Museum f. 18r–18v]);

2) Prayer Taken from the Book of the Prophet David (Duʿā mustakhraj min Kitāb Dāwūd al-nabī, ff. 37v–41r [BM ff. 18v–22r]);

3) Prayer Composed by One of the Righteous Christian Believers (Duʿā allafahu baʿḍ al-muʾminīn al-muḥiqqīn min al-Naṣārá, ff. 41r–47v [BM ff. 22r–28v]);

4) Three recipes for incense (ff. 47v–49v [BM ff. 28v–30v]);

5) The Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azminah, ff. 49v–70v, ff. 56–57 missing [BM ff. 30v–33v, 11r–16v, 3r–10v, 17r–17v, 1r and 1v]);

6) Fragment of an astrological text (ff. 70v-71v [BM ff. 1v-2v]).

The prayers that occupy the first eleven folios are clearly appropriate in a monastic context although certain features may seem jarring to the modern eye. One prayer ends with the invocation ‘O Lord of the Worlds!’ ( yā Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn, f. 18v), for example, and another is preceded by the basmala ( bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, f. 22r), both phrases which occur in the Qurʿān and appear distinctly Islamic today. But during this early period, and for centuries after Or. 8857 was copied, these phrases were used in common by the Arabic-speaking adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, although incense does not necessarily imply church ritual, the Trinitarian formula ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (bi-sm al-Ab wa-al-Ibn wa-rūḥ al-qudus, f. 28v) at the beginning of the incense recipes attests to their Christian context.

The last two texts in the fragment, however, seem less typical of a monastic library. The Book of Seasons is a sort of almanac containing information about the calendar, the heavens, weather phenomena, human illness and health and agricultural matters as they pertain to the twelve months of the year. This genre of literature, in which titles like the Book of Seasons or the Book of Asterisms ( Kitāb al-anwāʾ) are common, provided important guides for living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the year – especially useful for monastic communities surviving in often harsh and semi-isolated conditions. Indeed, one of the earliest authors of this genre was Abū Zakarīyā Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 243/857), a Nestorian Christian hospital director at Baghdad, personal physician to the Abbasid caliphs and teacher of the Nestorian physician and translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873).

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x000046
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The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.

 

Fragments reunited

A much larger fragment of the same manuscript of which Or. 8857 is also a fragment is now held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan under the shelfmark X 201 sup. According to a note by Mons. Enrico Rodolfo Galbiati (Doctor of the Ambrosiana 1953–84, Prefect of the Ambrosiana 1984–89) written in the margin of the Ambrosiana’s copy of Löfgren and Traini’s Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (vol. 1, p. 33), X 201 sup. was amongst a lot purchased in 1910 from an unknown dealer in Munich by Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, then Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (1907-14), but soon to lead the Catholic Church as Pope Pius XI (1922–39).

X 201 sup. has also been digitised and is now available on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, where I stumbled upon it, immediately recognising its similarity to Or. 8857. Like Or. 8857, the Milan manuscript is a miscellany combining Christian material with texts on herbal remedies, medicine, astrology and related topics. Likewise, the same Abbasid Bookhand and number of lines per page are found in both manuscripts. But it is the Greek and Georgian quire signatures alongside Coptic foliation found in both manuscripts that prove they are two pieces of the same puzzle.

According to the Coptic foliation and bilingual quire signatures, Or. 8857 contains ff. 37–71 (ff. 56 and 57 are missing) of the original manuscript, and its last quire signature is 9 on f. 17r (f. 69r of the Coptic foliation). The Milan manuscript contains 227 folios (beginning at ff. 97 and ending at f. 337 of the Coptic foliation, with some gaps), and its first quire signature is 13 on f. 101r (f. 5r of the modern Ambrosiana foliation).

We know that the quires in Or. 8857 were quaternions, which have eight folios each, so we would expect the Milan manuscript to be composed of quaternions too – although it should be pointed out that irregular quires are not unusual in manuscripts. Between the beginning of quire 9 (the last in Or. 8857) and the beginning of quire 13 (the first to begin in the Milan manuscript) there were four quires, which if they were all regular quaternions, should equal thirty-two folios (4 quires x 8 folios in each quire = 32 folios). When we count from the beginning of quire 9 on f. 69 of the Coptic foliation and to the end of quire 12 on f. 100 there are, indeed, exactly thirty-two folios, confirming that the two manuscripts are fragments from the same original manuscript.

Even though 77 folios have been lost from the original manuscript (ff. 1–36, 56–57 and 72–96 of the Coptic foliation, plus another 14 within the body of X 201 sup.), a very substantial 260 folios have now been identified, and this will no doubt form the basis for future studies into Abbasid scientific traditions amongst Christian monastic communities.

Thanks to international digitisation projects, the magic of IIIF, and the Mirador viewer there are fewer barriers than ever before to studies of this kind. In fact, anyone with a computer and access to the internet can virtually reunite the two fragments of this manuscript by following the steps below.

1) Navigate to X 201 sup. on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, and click on the words ‘Visualizza la copia digitale’. The images will open in the Mirador viewer via your web browser. Open the dropdown menu at the top left corner of the viewer window and choose a location in the viewer window at which to display Or. 8857.

A screen shot showing the cover of a book with a red binding, with thumbnails of pages on the bottom, and the file menu in the top left hand corner dropped down and highlighted in a red box with rounded edges

2) You will now see that a blank canvas has opened at your chosen location.

Screen shot with a book with a red binding atop thumbnails of pages on the left-hand side and a dark grey area with a red-outlined oval on the right-hand side

3) In another browser window, navigate to any page on the QDL displaying images of Or. 8857 and expand the tab marked ‘Use and Share this Record’.

Screen shot showing a white page with thumbnails of book spines in the centre and text on the bottom third, some of which is on a grey background. The lowest grey background is inside an oval outlined in red

4) Under the heading ‘IIIF details’, locate the IIIF logo next to the IIIF manifest for Or. 8857, drag the logo to the Mirador window in your web browser and drop it anywhere on the blank canvas (see step 2).

Screen shot with a black banner at the top and text with a grey background in the middle, with some of the text highlighted by lines and hollow boxes in red and light blue

5) Alternatively, you can copy the IIIF manifest (https://www.qdl.qa/en/iiif/81055/vdc_100073295641.0x000001/manifest) located next to the IIIF logo on the screen in step 4 and click on the blank canvas in the Mirador viewer (see step 2). This will open the screen below, where you can paste the IIIF manifest into the field marked ‘Add new object from URL’ and click ‘Load’.

Screen shot showing a primarily white screen with a series of thumbnails of manuscript pages on the top third of the screen

6) You can now use the dropdown menus to choose how you would like to view each of the manuscripts and even repeat the steps above to add more canvases and view other IIIF compliant objects at the same time.

Screen shot of a black background with a matrix of thumbnails showing various pages of manuscripts

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.

Bibliography:

Chrisomalis, Stephen, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 135–37, table 5.1 (Greek and Georgian); 139, table 5.3 (Greek); 150, table 5.5 (Coptic/ zimām, the numerals for 600 [𐋸] and 700 [𐋹] are erroneously reversed) and 178, table 5.20 (Georgian)

Ifrah, Georges, The Universal History of Numbers from Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer , trans. by D. Bellos, E.F. Harding, S. Wood and I. Monk (New York–Chichester–Weinheim–Brisbane–Singapore–Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pp. 220 (Greek), 225 (Georgian), and 545 (Coptic/zimām),

Kawatoko, Mutsuo, ‘On the Use of Coptic Numerals in Egypt in the 16th Century’, Orient 28 (1992) 71, fig. 3 (helpfully, gives variant forms for most numerals)

List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034 (British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7)

Löfgren, Oscar and Renato Traini,Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 3 vols, Fontes Ambrosiani LI, LXVI and Nuova Serie II (Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1975–95) vol. 1, item 33, pp. 33–35

Pataridze, Tamara, ‘Les Signatures des cahiers unilingues et bilingues dans les manuscrits Sinaïtiques (Georgiens, Arabes et Syriaques)’, Manuscripta Orientalia 18.1 (2012) 15–35

Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, ed. by Colin Baker (London: British Library, 2001)

Varisco, Daniel, ‘The Origin of the Anwāʾ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica 74 (1991) 5–28

14 August 2020

How Should We Write Yorùbá? Diacritics in Modern Yoruba Writing

Chart of letters with diacritics in Yorùbá in black and white
A version of Yorùbá letters for the computer.
CC Public Domain Image

Working in the British Library collections — as Chevening British Library Fellow in the Asian and African Collections — has given me a unique insight into some issues in the orthography of Yorùbá. Having spent close to a year working with the printed materials in the language from the very first published texts to the modern day, I have as much familiarity with some of the problems as many new questions of my own. As my fellowship wraps up, I consider this an opportune time to engage with relevant stakeholders in a conversation on this subject with a view to providing direction to the future of the language. And with COVID-19 keeping everyone at home, an online conversation provides a good opportunity.

The proposed event — an online symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century — will be held on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020, 15.00-17.00 (details below).

Writing in Yorùbá with the computer has always been an issue. I first noticed it as an undergraduate at the university in the early 2000s, where my Microsoft Word underlined my name with a red wriggly line because it was not recognizable in English; but also when I couldn’t find the diacritics under the symbols menu to properly write the name. Yorùbá, being a tone language, uses diacritics (special symbols under and on top of vowels and some consonants) to differentiate words that have similar spellings but different meanings. (I spoke more about this problem in a recent essay on a new writing script for Igbo.)

Names in Yorùbá are given with the express purpose of couching meaning, cultural values, ambitions, prayers, and aspirations for the child, among others. If they are written in a way that doesn’t convey their meanings, perhaps because of the lack of diacritics, then their purposes have been defeated. Yet many writers have had to write Yorùbá names without diacritics, mostly for the lack of computer technological resources to write them in any other way; but also because over time, literacy in reading and writing Yorùbá also had begun to wane, leaving many to assume that the language can be written in official publications without the use of diacritics.

As an adult graduate of linguistics, I found that the issue was not limited to Yorùbá or Nigeria at all, but to many minority languages in the world, especially ones with special characters.

Three books at an angle over a book stop with a toy-sized man
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But there are other issues in Yorùbá orthography that are worth discussing. Since Bishop Àjàyí Crowther first wrote the language down in 1843, there have been very many changes made to the writing of Yorùbá, most notably in 1967 by Ayọ̀ Bámgbóṣé, a Professor of Linguistics. There have been others, from formal critiques and reviews to informal suggestions and creative use in literature and social media. And scholars working in the language — even writers using it in code-switching instances in their literature — have had to grapple with the many complications arising from using Yorùbá in the 21st century, not least how it is supposed to work on the web – where young writers are circumventing the old orthography with words like “oshey” or “wayray” or “jor” showing up to replace “oṣé” (thank you), “wèrè” (a mad person) and “jọ̀ọ́” (please).

That’s why the British Library, in partnership with the Lagos Studies Association and Africa Writes, is organising an online conversation to discuss these issues. It is titled:

How Should We Write Yorùbá?

A Two-session Online Symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century

(Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020

15.00-17.00, West African and UK time).

The event brings together experts in the field to share their experience and thoughts. There will be plenty of time to discuss issues raised by our panels as well as by audience members, who we hope will come from all around the world.

The conversation will be of interest to anyone interested in Yorùbá, writing in any tonal language that uses diacritics, publishing, code-switching, language scripts, language evolution, and challenges in African language writing in the 21st century in general.

Day 1: Yorùbá: From Mission Field to Web Page

Wednesday 2 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Day 2: Using Yorùbá Today: Literature, Leisure and the Academy

Thursday 3 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Register here to attend.

Head shot of man outdoorsHead shot of woman outdoors
Presenters Dr Túndé Adégbọlá (left) and Professor Karin Barber (right). (© Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún)

Confirmed speakers include:

• ● Professor Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́,Humanities Distinguished Professor, Ohio State University

• ● Dr Túndé Adegbọlá, Human Language Technologist, and Executive Director, African Languages Technology Initiative

• ● Mosúnmọ́lá Adéọjọ, doctoral student and Writing Instructor at the University of Florida

• ● Àrẹ̀mú Adéọlá, the Yorùbá scrabble inventor

• ● Professor Karin Barber (CBE), cultural anthropologist and academic; currently London School of Economics Centennial Professor

• ● Dr Carli Coetzee, editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies and Research Associate, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

• ● Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Nigerian linguist, creative writer and currently a Chevening British Library Fellow working in the Asian and African Collections

• ● Mọlará Wood, writer, cultural activist and critic

Host: Dr. Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, at the British Library

I look forward to seeing you there.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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28 December 2018

Download Hebrew Manuscripts for free, in partnership with BL Labs

We are delighted to announce that five more downloadable datasets containing a total of 139 digitised Hebrew Manuscripts have just been published online here, bringing the total number of Hebrew datasets to 22, and 723 manuscripts. These manuscripts were digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts (2013-2016), and we are able to provide them to download and reuse as part of the British Library Labs project (BL Labs).

Festival Prayer Book, Italy, 1427-11499
Festival Prayer Book, Italy, 1427-11499. Harley MS 5686, ff. 28r: miniature on the top shows a congregation praying in a synagogue, and the miniature on the bottom depicts the allegorical ‘Shabbat Bride’ under a wedding canopy. The manuscript can be found in dataset Heb19
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Formed in 2013, BL Labs is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project which supports and inspires the use of the British Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways, through competitions, events and collaborative projects around the world. The team provides a digital research support service (you may apply for up to 5 days’ support service using this form) and promotes engagement with the Library’s digital collections and data through a series of events and workshops around the UK.

Each autumn, the British Library Labs Awards recognises exceptional projects that have used the Library’s digital collections and data in four awards categories: Research, Artistic, Commercial, and Teaching/Learning (If you know of someone who has done outstanding work using British Library digital collections and data, please encourage them to apply).


What’s in the datasets?
The digitised manuscripts are provided as 300ppi JPEGs, divided into small datasets of around 50GB each, sorted alphabetically by shelfmark (20 to 30 manuscripts per dataset). They contain a huge variety of Hebrew manuscripts, including Kabbalistic works, linguistic works, prayer books, biblical texts and commentaries, marriage certificates, charters and scrolls. The manuscripts also contain texts in many different languages, including Latin, Greek, Yiddish, Persian, Italian, Arabic and Syriac. The catalogue records for all of these manuscripts can be found in dataset Heb1 (TEI XML files).

All of the manuscripts are Public Domain, but we would appreciate it if users could read our Ethical terms of use guide before reusing the Hebrew manuscripts datasets.

Below is an overview of each of the new datasets, and a full list of all of the manuscripts included in the datasets can be seen here. We'd love to hear what you've done or made with the manuscript images and/or metadata, so please email us at digitalresearch@bl.uk.

Heb18. This dataset includes 22 manuscripts ranging from Add MS 27141 to Arundel Or 50. It includes commentaries on the Talmud and Midrash, Kabbalistic works, two German prayer books (Add MS 27208 and Add MS 27556) and a collection of medical prescriptions ‘Sefer Refu’ot’ from the 15th century, Germany (Add MS 27170). The miscellany Arundel OR 50 (1400-1799) includes a Hebrew Grammar in Latin, with a translation of the Lord's Prayer and the Christian confession of faith.

This dataset also includes ‘The Polyglot Bible’ (Add MS 5242), created in England in 1665. As well as having beautifully detailed illustrations, this manuscript, will be of great interest to linguists. It contains excerpts from the Old and New Testament and liturgical pieces translated into many different languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Spanish, Italian, French and German.

The Polyglot Bible, England, 1665 Add MS 5242, ff. 7v-8r: the commandment of keeping the Sabbath3_add_ms_5242_f007v
The Polyglot Bible, England, 1665 Add MS 5242, ff. 7v-8r: the commandment of keeping the Sabbath
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The Polyglot Bible, England, 16, Add MS 5242, ff. 14v-15r: Canticum B Virginis5_add_ms_5242_f014v
The Polyglot Bible, England, 16, Add MS 5242, ff. 14v-15r: Canticum B Virginis
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Heb19. This dataset includes 20 manuscripts from Harley MS 1743 to Or 12983. It contains many manuscripts looking at language and translation, including several Hebrew-Latin dictionaries and grammars, a 17 – 18th-century copy of the Psalms with Greek and Latin translations (Harley MS 2427), and Harley MS 7637, an 18th-century gospel of St Matthew in Hebrew translation. It also contains the 18 – 19th-century German manuscript ‘Perek Shirah’ (Or 12983), a midrashic commentary with a Yiddish translation.

Perek Shirah, Germany, 1750 – 1899, Or 12983, f. 1r
Perek Shirah, Germany, 1750 – 1899, Or 12983, f. 1r: a depiction of the world God created at the beginning of Chapter 1 of ‘Perek Shirah’: “The Heavens are saying: ‘The Heavens speak of God’s glory, and the skies tell of His handiwork.’ (Ps. 19:2)”
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The dataset also includes two early copies of parts of the Talmud – one of the central texts in Judaism. Harley MS 5794* (this manuscript has since been renamed in the British Library catalogue as Harley MS 5794A) contains sections of the Mishnah of Tractates Avot and Zeva’im, and was written in Spain in the 12th century. The manuscript Harley MS 5508 contains eight tractates of Seder Mo’ed from the Babylonian Talmud, and it was written in Spain in the 12th or 13th-century.

Heb20. This dataset includes 32 manuscripts from Or 2486 to Or 2508. It includes many different biblical commentaries and Midrashim (biblical exegesis) in Persian, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic. Some of these range from as early as the 13th century (such as Or 2494 – Or 2497).

The dataset also includes the Torah scroll Or 13027. This 30 metre, 18-19th century scroll was digitised alongside its silk mantle, which was extensively restored by the British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose. An article discussing her work can be seen here. As part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project’s digital scholarship activities, this Torah mantle was 3D modelled by Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert. You can read more about 3D imaging within the British Library here, and the 3D image of the Torah Mantle can be viewed, annotated and downloaded from Sketchfab.

Pentateuch Scroll, Or 13027, unknown, 1750–1899. Silk brocade mantle after conservation
Pentateuch Scroll, Or 13027, unknown, 1750–1899. Silk brocade mantle after conservation
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Heb21. This dataset includes 33 manuscripts from Or 2518 to Or 5834. It includes many Arabic and Judeo-Arabic commentaries ranging in age from the 10th to the 16th centuries, such as on the Psalms and other biblical books from the Prophets and the Hagiographa. The earliest of these (Or 2552) is a collection of commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, and Japheth ben Ali's Arabic commentary on Job. Japheth ben Ali is considered to be the foremost Karaite commentator on the bible, and he lived during the ‘Golden Age of Karaism’ in the 10th century. He died sometime in the second half of the 10th century, and so this manuscript, dated between the 10th and 11th century, could feasibly have been copied during his lifetime, or by someone who knew him directly.

Sefer ha-Peli’ah, unknown, 1562 Sefer ha-Peli’ah, unknown, 1562
Sefer ha-Peli’ah, unknown, 1562. Or 2672, ff. 31r and 67r: two folios from ‘Sefer ha-Peli’ah’ (The Book of Wonder), a Kabbalistic biblical commentary
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Heb22. This dataset contains 32 manuscripts from Or 6236 to Stowe Ch 297. As well as several commentaries, a magic spell, and the Revelation of St John in Hebrew translation (Sloane MS 237), this dataset includes six different Jewish marriage certificates (Ketubot) dating from between 1711 and 1835, and a discussion on marriage law from the 15th century (Or 6358).

Stowe Ch 297 is part of the British Library’s fascinating collection of English charters dating to before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. It is a French quitclaim with a Hebrew docket dating from 1266, in which Beatriz of Rattlesden, the prioress and the convent of Flixton is released from any obligation on the lands she and her convent acquired from Oliver Buscel.

Or 6360 is a 17-18th-century collection of astrological, kabbalistic and magical fragments. It includes ‘Sefer ha-Levanah’, an astrological book about the stages of the moon’s orbit, and ‘Mafteah Shelomoh’, a Hebrew translation of part one of the 14th or 15th-century grimoire ‘Key of Solomon’, one of only two versions that exist in Hebrew (part two, in Or 14759, is in the process of being digitised as part of Phase 2 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project). The text is attributed to King Solomon, and it would have been written originally in Latin or Italian. It includes invocations to summon the dead or demons, and compel them to do the reader’s will. It also includes curses and spells such as for finding stolen items, invisibility, and love.

Collection of Astrological, Kabbalistic and Magical Fragments, unknown, 1600–1700. Or 6360, f. 1r
Collection of Astrological, Kabbalistic and Magical Fragments, unknown, 1600–1700. Or 6360, f. 1r: the first page of ‘Sefer ha-Levanah’, with an Astrologer
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Miriam Lewis, Project Manager Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad37726d4200c-pi

20 April 2018

Sketchfab 3-D modelling of trooper Ami Chand of Skinner's Horse

Last month as part of a pilot on using three-dimensional modelling at the British Library's Digitisation Studio, a few objects from the Visual Arts section were photographed and rendered using a Cyreal 3D camera rig and made available through Sketchfab. One of the objects selected is the terracotta model of 'Ummeechund', a trooper of Skinner's Horse which painted using polychrome pigments and modelled with wires and an armature. It measures 28.5 cm high. The trooper is featured wearing the distinctive long yellow coat with red trimmings, a black jacket with red frogging, a tiger-skin bandolier, a tall shark marked with a crescent and with red trimmings and tassels, and white pantaloons. His left hand rests on the hilt of his upright sword. As the trooper was last displayed in the Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire exhibition at the British Library from 2012-13 and now currently in storage, it was the ideal candidate for digital modelling as it is fragile.

Ami Chand ('Ummeechund'), a trooper in Skinner's Horse. Delhi or Lucknow, c. 1819-20. British Library, Foster 979.

Skinner's Horse was the regiment of irregular cavalry established by James Skinner (1778-1841) in 1803 in northern India. As Skinner was an Anglo Indian, son of a Scottish solider and Rajasthani mother, he was not allowed to serve in the East India Company as a solider and established an independent cavalry. Skinner initially supported the Marathas against the British, but changed sides in 1803. In 1814, he established the second regiment of the irregular cavalry to support the British against the Nepalese. Aside from establishing Skinner's Horse or the 'Yellow Boys', Skinner is recognised as a key patron of art in Delhi during the first half of the 20th century. Skinner was close friends with artist James Baillie Fraser and his brother William Fraser, the Assistant to the Resident at Delhi from 1805, who were also patrons of local artists.

The terracotta figure of Ami Chand was produced approximately in 1819-20. The portrayal is closely linked to a portrait of Ami Chand, commissioned by William Fraser (in the collection of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan) in May 1819. The inscription below the painting in William Fraser's hand reads: 'Ummee Chund the son of Oodey Ram by birth a Bath of vil. Gundana District Gohand province Hissar or Hurreeanah. The man who saved my life when an assassin cut me down by seizing him tho' unarmed himself. In his troop dress - done in May 1819.' Ami Chand saved Fraser by throwing an inkstand at the assassin. According to correspondence between the Fraser brothers, Ami Chand was employed by the Frasers for several years and featured in at least two portraits belonging to the brothers. A study of six recruits from the peasant castes Jat and Gujjar that lived on the outskirts of Delhi is featured below for comparison of the style of the uniform.  

 Add Or 1261 copySix recruits to the second regiment of Skinner's Horse, Delhi 1815-20. British Library, Add Or 1261. Noc
 

Ami Chand was not the only servant working for the Fraser brothers that was portrayed. In the David Collection in Copenhagen, there are two drawings featuring Kala, one showing him dressed in simply trousers and turban with no top based on his attire while out hunting and a second in full regimental attire of the irregular cavalry of Skinner's Horse. 

Further reading:

Mildred Archer and Toby Falk, India Revealed: the Art and Adventures of James and William Fraser 1801-35, London, 1989.

J. P. Losty, 'New evidence for the style of the 'Fraser artist' in Delhi: Portraits of Afghans in 1808-10', AAS Blog, 01/11/2015.

J.P. Losty, 'James Skinner's Tazkirat al-Umara now digitised'AAS Blog, 07/07/2014.

J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012, ch. 4.

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

24 October 2016

Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts: conference at the British Library, 21 November 2016

You are welcome to join us in a conference celebrating the end of Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP) and the beginning of Phase 2! This conference will take place on Monday, 21 November 2016, at the Bronte Room, British Library Conference Centre (map) – programme is available here.

The first session will be dedicated to the British Library’s digitised collection of Hebrew manuscripts. Ilana Tahan, the Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections, will begin the session with her presentation about the history of the collection and the people who contributed to its creation. Miriam Lewis, the HMDP Project Manager, will then talk about the workflow of digitisation and the different work strands, including conservation, cataloguing, imaging, and online presentation. Closing this session, Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, the project’s Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), will talk about digital scholarship, and will especially focus on how people can access the digitised manuscripts – the images, metadata, content, updates, and how the Library can help.

The second session will look more broadly at what the Library has to offer to students and researchers. Allan Sudlow (Head of Research Development) and James Perkins (Research & Postgraduate Development Manager) will explore the opportunities the Library has to offer to graduate students and academics, such as collaborative research and PhD placements. Mahendra Mahey, head of British Library Labs, will introduce this initiative and how it encourages and supports the innovative use of the Library’s digital collection and data. Closing the session, Digital Curator Mia Ridge will talk about the current platform for viewing manuscripts (Digitised Manuscripts), and the next generation - a viewer based on the Universal Viewer technology.

Digitised Manuscripts website showing a 15th century Sefer ha-Zohar (British Library Add MS 17745)
Digitised Manuscripts website showing a 15th century Sefer ha-Zohar (British Library Add MS 17745)

During an extended lunch break, attendees will be able to browse through digitised Hebrew manuscripts (or any other digitised manuscripts for this matter!) on Digitised Manuscripts, using laptops set up for this purpose.

The afternoon sessions will cover other projects working with digitised Hebrew manuscripts in UK university libraries as well as the National Library of Israel (NLI). Aviad Stollman, Head of Collections Division at the NLI, and Tsafra Siew, KTIV Project Manager will talk about the KTIV project to digitise and make available all Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. This project follows from the work of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which has been collecting microfilm copies of Hebrew manuscripts from around the world for the last 60 years. In collaboration with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS), the NLI initiated the renewal of this collection. In the framework of this enterprise, tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts will be digitised and made available online. Aviad will focus on the reasons why the NLI sees this project as a priority, why manuscripts as a medium are so significant, and why it is crucial to preserve and disseminate them. Tsafra will elaborate on the project’s short and long term goals.

Website for KTIV: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts
Website for KTIV: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts

Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Hebrew and Judaica Curator at the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford), will follow with an overview of the Vatican-Bodleian Polonsky Digitization Project. Focusing particularly on Hebrew and Judaica manuscripts, Cesar will explore the scope of the project, the choice of manuscripts to be digitised, the methodology regarding the metadata, the electronic catalogue, the search programme and the project website.

Website for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project
Website for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project

After the break we’ll be joined by Renate Smithuis, Lecturer in Medieval Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. Renate will present the Crawford and Gaster Hebrew collections at the John Rylands Library and the creation of an online catalogue as part of a new digital platform. This digitisation project focuses on codices, scrolls, amulets and other texts in Hebrew script. These are being captured in text (using TEI) and image with the aim of producing a complete online catalogue.

Closing our conference is Gabriele Ferrario from the Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library. Gabriele will talk about the Mellon Trust funded project to text-mine a manuscript catalogue for the documentary materials of the Cairo Genizah. The discovery of research material on tens of thousands of manuscript fragments is difficult and time-consuming due to the lack of reliable catalogue descriptions for the greater part of this collection. Drawing on a century of published scholarship on the collection, this project will automate the production of metadata. Gabriele will present the aims, methodology and results of this project and consider possible future developments.

We’re hoping to see you with us on this special event dedicated to Hebrew manuscripts! Registration is free, but please book your place as space is limited: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/digitised-hebrew-manuscripts-british-library-and-beyond-tickets-26408351089.

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

03 October 2016

What do you think about our digitised Hebrew manuscripts?

We’ve been digitising Hebrew manuscripts and making them available on the Digitised Manuscripts website since 2013, with generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation. With the recent start of Phase 2 of our digitisation project (funded by the National Library of Israel), we took the opportunity to hear your thoughts! We conducted a survey to find out if and how we can improve access to our digitised Hebrew manuscripts, and whether we can be of assistance with digital research using the collection.

We were thrilled to received 107 responses to our survey, mostly from researchers and academics. They come from a wide breadth of organisations in the UK, Europe, Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, and even Uruguay!

Access to data

One key issue covered by our survey was accessibility. Our digitised manuscripts are currently available for viewing through the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. This platform offers search functionality and a smart viewer, with which you can browse images quickly and in very high resolution.

Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (British Library Harley MS 5698), viewed on Digitised Manuscripts.
Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (British Library Harley MS 5698), viewed on Digitised Manuscripts. Noc

When asked how access can be improved, most respondents wanted to be able to download images, preferably in high resolution. They asked to make the collection free to use, but also to make it clear when one should be aware of usage terms. Being able to view manuscripts’ thumbnails was another suggestion, as well as that our viewer supports IIIF (IIIF – International Image Interoperability Framework – is a set of standards to promote the interoperability and ease of use of digital images, using standard web protocols). People also wanted to be able to share images of digitised manuscripts, for example through e-mail or social media.

Our respondents’ interest was not only in the digitised images, but also in the metadata – our catalogue records. People requested that we make our metadata available for download. In addition, they asked that we update and correct our metadata, or create a framework to crowdsource this task. It was also considered important that the visual appearance of metadata on our viewer is improved. Enhancing search functionality was also a very popular suggestion – people want to find manuscripts of interest more easily. And another prominent request was that we provide a list of all digitised Hebrew manuscripts.

We’re happy to say that we have either addressed or in the process of addressing all of these issues! To start with the latter suggestion, we have made available a list of manuscripts to download as a spreadsheet from the Hebrew Manuscripts website. We have also made our entire set of TEI XML metadata records available for download as a ZIP file (with open license CC-0). We’re also aware that Digitised Manuscripts offers limited search options, and we’re in the process of replacing this viewer with a new one (see below). In the meantime, searching this spreadsheet (e.g. in MS Excel) or filtering the data by column would make it easier to find things and get to manuscripts of interest.

A catalogue records viewer, created by Alex Mendes, enabling to display and export the project’s metadata
A catalogue records viewer, created by Alex Mendes, enabling to display and export the project’s metadata

Downloading high quality images was indicated as a key necessity among our users. Following the approval of an internal British Library group (Access and Reuse), we are now able to release our images for free as 300ppi JPEGs. We are in the process of preparing those for British Library Labs data.bl.uk website (to be launched in November 2016). This involves assigning the right usage term statement to each manuscript, converting the project’s TIFF files into JPEGs, and compressing these JPEGs – while keeping them in very high quality.

Preparing our collection for free and easy access will also address the suggestion to release our material as open data. Our material will be released as Public Domain, although some of it is technically still in copyright (according to UK copyright law). As this is a very low risk, it will be released for use as Public Domain, but with an appropriate disclaimer. We will make clear which manuscripts fall under which licensing category.

Many suggestions for improvement will be addressed with the transition from the Digitised Manuscripts platform to a new viewer. The new viewer is based on the Universal Viewer technology, an open source project in which the British Library is a partner. The new viewer is replacing legacy viewers for accessing digitised collection items.It will bring together manuscripts, printed books, born digital and sound content. Some of the issues mentioned above will be addressed by this viewer’s functionality:
1.    Features such as Download, Print, Share and Embed.
2.    The Universal Viewer is IIIF compliant.
3.    It enables thumbnails on a side panel, allowing for a quick browse of the manuscript. These can be expanded throughout the whole page (Gallery view), and enlarged or reduced in size as needed.
4.    Better quality viewing experience for digital collection material and metadata.
5.    It will enable the insertion of text transcriptions alongside digitised images of the manuscript represented. The full text would then be searchable.
6.    It will also indicate the relevant license and usage terms for each manuscript.

A sample item on the Universal Viewer, demonstrating the viewer’s functionality.
A sample item on the Universal Viewer, demonstrating the viewer’s functionality. Noc

Digital Research

Another goal of the survey was to get an idea of the types of digital tools and techniques used by researchers to analyse digitised Hebrew manuscripts.  Most researchers indicated using digital tools for their work, the most popular being image/script comparison tools, annotations and data visualisations, followed by text mining, image analysis tools and crowdsourcing.

It is clear, however, that we can do so much more to facilitate research in this respect. Several people suggested that the project should be more geared toward research and enable a dedicated platform for some or all tools mentioned above. Special emphasis was made on the need for transcriptions, translations and annotations – and a platform to crowdsource them. These features would not only help promote research in general, but also open up our collection to non-Hebrew readers.

Other suggestions related to the creation of relationships with other digital resources such as catalogues and databases, for better discoverability. These included using Linked Open Data (LOD) to express relationships with other resources in other languages, and creating connections to the web catalogue of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (IMHM) and to other databases in Jewish studies. It was also suggested that we create API access to search our digitised collection via other platforms.

We are very grateful for these ideas – they are definitely something for us to explore. Whether we create something from scratch, or leverage on platforms or tools that were developed or are in the process of development – these useful suggestions will be examined in terms of priorities and potential future projects.

It was encouraging to see the level of survey participation and feedback, and hopefully we will keep improving our resources for the benefit of our growing audience!

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow)  Ccownwork

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