Collection Care blog

03 April 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a burnt scroll (Or. 8210/ S.2155)

The Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at The British Library is a multi-year project which started in 2018. The project aims to digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible. Out of these 800 scrolls, a large portion of them need conservation work. Our conservators deal with a variety of lengths of scrolls on this project, ranging from 30 centimetre fragments to scrolls measuring up to 13 metres. This blog post covers the treatment of an item which I (Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator) had the opportunity to work on. 

Falling under a treatment time estimate of 25 hours, the condition of this item before treatment was not ideal. As a digitisation conservator, my aim is to stabilise the object to:

a) Ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and quality control

b) Ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken

Or 8210 before treatment shown laid out on a desk with visible burn marks and missing areas of text.

Picture 1: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

Before treatment neither safe handling or a high-quality image capture was possible. The damage left the scroll incredibly vulnerable. With every handling, small fragments of burnt paper were flaking off. In addition, the burns were making the paper curl at the edges. 

The scroll had been damaged by fire at some point during its lifetime. It is certain that the scroll acquired these burns whilst it was rolled up as the burn damage is throughout its entire length, in a repeated pattern. How the scroll came to be burned, we can only assume. This could have been due to candles, incense or oil lamps used at the time (6th- 11th Century).  It is most likely that while being handled in its rolled up state, it accidentally came in contact with an open flame or heat source. Whilst there may be some large losses, luckily much of the text is still present. 

As this scroll measures 10 metres, it was crucial to work in sections. To start off, I surface cleaned the scroll using some soft cosmetic sponges to remove any surface dirt. Next, humidification was applied to the scroll via a gentle mist, and then flattened under boards and weights. The whole length of the scroll had to be humidified for the paper to lie as flat as possible in order to enable repairs. The introduction of moisture also returned a little flexibility to the burnt areas. 

A toned Japanese paper was selected for the repairs, which has a sympathetic tone to the original paper. A common question we often get is: why do we use Japanese paper, such as kozo (made from the bark of the mulberry tree), when treating an object made of Chinese paper? The long fibres in kozo gives it mechanical strength, tear resistance and flexibility. On the other hand, fibre length in xuan paper (Chinese paper) is much shorter than kozo (and generally other Japanese papers) and consequently its tear strength is not as great. This makes Japanese papers ideal for repairs in paper conservation, it can be strong enough to act as a repair paper, whilst being flexible and light enough to not cause any damage to the original scroll.  

To apply the repairs, I used wheat starch paste. When working with scrolls, the paste has to be the correct consistency to enable enough flexibility for the rolled item. Each repair was then left under a weight for an appropriate amount of time.

Before treatment showing the scroll with burn damage along the full length.

Picture 2: Or.8210/S.2155 before treatment

After treatment showing the scroll with Japanese paper repairs.

Picture 3: Or.8210/S.2155 after treatment

After treatment, the scroll is now in a much better state. It can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. Whilst the burnt edges no longer curl up and now lie flat, notes have been passed on to our trained photographers, to take extra precaution when handling this item. I am pleased with the result of this treatment, it was a great success! 

Scroll after treatment showing the scroll lying flat with repairs. The burnt edges are no longer curling up.

Picture 4: Or. 8210/ S.2155 after treatment

Marya Muzart, IDP Digitisation Conservator

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