Collection Care blog

21 May 2020

Lotus Sutra Project: Conservation of a Scroll with Pre-11th Century Repairs. How Do We Avoid Disassociation?

Marya Muzart, Digitisation Conservator International Dunhuang Project

The Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project at The British Library, is a multi-year project aiming to conserve and digitise almost 800 copies of the Lotus Sutra scrolls in Chinese, with a view to make images and information freely accessible on the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) website. These manuscripts come from a small cave in a Buddhist Cave complex near Dunhuang, in Northwest China, where tens of thousands of documents, paintings and artefacts dating from the late 4th to the beginning of the 11th centuries were discovered in 1900. 

Out of the 800 manuscripts included in this project, a large portion of them need conservation work. This blog post covers the treatment of Or.8210/S.3455, and introduces the approach taken when we come across a scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage, but which we do not want to permanently separate from the scroll.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Recto before treatment.

Picture 1: Recto before treatment.

A scroll with historical repairs which are causing damage. Verso before treatment.
Picture 2: Verso before treatment.

Or.8210/S.3455 is an 8-metre-long scroll with many historical repairs (we know that these repairs predate or date back to the beginning of the 11th century due to the provenance of the items in this collection). Carrying out repairs on damaged scrolls was a common practice in Buddhist monasteries, so we frequently come across historical repairs in the form of paper patches not only in the Lotus Sutra Project, but the Stein collection as a whole.[1]

These repairs are present throughout the scroll in varying sizes, however the two large historical repairs on the 1st and 2nd panel were the most challenging ones in terms of treatment. As we can see from the images above, the historical repairs in combination with the adhesive used were causing extreme distortion. As a digitisation conservator my aim is to ensure the item can be safely handled during digitisation and to ensure the text is visible and accessible so that high quality images can be taken. Not only was the scroll incredibly vulnerable to any handling, but its condition would have also made it impossible to produce suitable images during digitisation. This is why treatment on this scroll was necessary. 

Examining the scroll before treatment, it was clear that the historical patches needed to be removed in order to flatten the scroll and carry out repairs. Because the scrolls are archaeological artefacts, separating the historical repairs not only runs the risk of disassociation from the original manuscript, but it also takes away from its rich history as an object. This is why we always aim to avoid the permanent separation of any historical repairs from scrolls and I took the decision to reattach the historical repairs as a final stage of treatment.

How detrimental a historical repair can be, is dependent on the paper and the adhesive used. Thick paper and thick adhesive will cause distortions, as we can see in the images above. However, there has been evidence of some historical repairs applied very finely. So each historical repair that we see during the project presents a unique situation and treatment approach.

Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

Picture 3: Verso after removal of historical repairs. Excess adhesive can be seen, which required further removal. 

The first stage of treatment was to remove the historical repairs. After surface cleaning using a cosmetic sponge, gentle humidification was applied. Patience is key here, as I had to work one small area at a time using a micro spatula to slowly lift the historical repairs. It was important to get enough humidification introduced to soften and swell the adhesive for easy removal, but not so much as the paper would become extremely wet. You can see from the image above, once the historical repairs were removed, the dark crusty areas show how thick the adhesive had been applied, which further helps us to understand the distortions and tensions caused by this. The excess adhesive was further removed using the same technique; gentle humidification and a micro spatula. Any adhesive which was removed was kept in small sample bags for possible future analysis.

Once the historical repairs and the majority of excess adhesive was removed, the panels were flattened under boards and weights. When flattening was complete conservation repairs on the scroll were carried out using toned Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. When the conservation on the scroll was completed, it was time to reattach the historical repairs. 

The historical repairs were not reattached fully onto the scroll. Completely pasting down the historical repairs would simply cause the same damage as before. Instead, they were re-attached using some small Japanese paper tabs and wheat starch paste, each tab measures no more than a few millimetres and these are placed at strategic points underneath the repairs to stop any tension and subsequent distortion from occurring. These can easily be removed in the future if necessary, by simply cutting the small Japanese paper tabs, or by introducing gentle moisture to soften the wheat starch paste. It is important to note that the scroll spends the majority of its life rolled up, so the historical repairs were reattached whilst the scroll was rolled up. If they had been re-attached whilst flat there would be much tension occurring once it is rolled up. 

As you can see from the after treatment images, the historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. The scroll can be safely handled and digitised by trained internal staff. By re-attaching the historical repairs, we have successfully avoided the disassociation that would occur from permanently separating the historical repairs from the scroll, therefore losing a part of its history. All in all, the treatment was successful.  

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Recto after treatment.

Picture 4: Recto after treatment.

The historical repairs now do not create any tensions or distortions. Verso after treatment.

Picture 5: Verso after treatment.

[1]  Rong, X. (2013). Eighteen Lectures On Dunhuang. Translated by Galambos, I. Boston: Brill, p.123.

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