Collection Care blog

1 posts from July 2015

06 July 2015

Under the Microscope with Magna Carta

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 Carta manuscripts dating to 15 June 1215. Enjoy!

Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy examines the Magna Carta with a digital microscope. The manuscript rests on a copy stand.

Imaging Scientist Dr Christina Duffy operating a digital microscope at the British Library.

A full view of Magna Carta 1215. It is a rectangular pieces of parchment with small text.

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 initials.

A close up of the bottom left of Magna Carta 1215.

Magna Carta 1215 detail.

20x magnification showing an uppercase letter that has been half filled in, with dotted lines going down the centre.

Iron gall ink at 20 times magnification.

An even closer image of the O - some cracks are visible.

Iron gall ink at 30 times magnification.

An even closer shot, showing loss of ink on the parchment surface.

Iron gall ink at 150 times magnification.

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.

A closeup of the text along the right hand side of the Magna Carta. Text runs in horizontal lines across the image.

Magna Carta 1215 detail right side.

A close up of some of the text, showing a variety of letter forms. Some loss of ink is visible.

Ink loss at 30 times magnification.

100 times magnification showing ink loss.

Ink loss at 100 times magnification.

200 times magnification shows incredible detail of ink loss.

Ink loss at 200 times magnification.


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.

A close up of text in the centre of the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta detail at the centre of the manuscript.

A closer look at the text showing some damage to the parchment.

Damage at 30 times magnification.

50 times magnification of this damaged section of parchment.

Damage at 50 times magnification.

150 times magnification of this damaged region. At this resolution the skin is quite textured.

Damage at 150 times magnification.


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

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)