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Team members stand in a lab space reviewing a piece of parchment skin together.
Team members Pádraig O’Macháin, John Gillis, Anna Hoffmann, and Fenella France discuss aspects of traditional parchment preparation with PRTD staff in the CHARM reference collection. Photo Credit, Franky Moore

Of Inks and Skins, and the Stories They Tell

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The following is a guest post by Cindy Connelly Ryan and Meghan Hill, preservation science specialists, Research and Testing Division, and team members of the Inks and Skins project.

“Thirteen hundred years of Irish manuscripts, in a day, at the Library of Congress! What a marvelous event!” said Eugene Flanagan, Director of General and International Collections.

The Inks and Skins collaboration bridges heritage science and humanities approaches to studying the materiality of late medieval Gaelic language manuscripts. Team members from University College Cork (UCC)’s Department of Modern Irish, UCC Tyndall Research Institute, and the Library of Congress’ Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) are jointly pursuing tandem threads of complimentary research. These codices contain a wealth of tales and poetry, together with historical, legal, and scientific writing. The vernacular traditions contained in these books are extraordinary witnesses to Gaelic civilization and learning on the western limit of the known world.  In September, PRTD hosted a 2-day symposium for the project team to share and discuss our findings to date.

Woman and man shaking hands in a large conference room.
Irish Ambassador to the USA, her Excellency Geraldine Byrne Nason, is greeted by Jake Nadal, Director for Preservation, and PRTD Chief Fenella France. Photo credit, Franky Moore.


“The mix of scholarship, learning, wonder, and fun that characterized the day,” Flanagan continues, “was set by Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason, who launched the symposium with her remarks about Irish history, language, and culture, and her ‘fork in the road’ moment that led to diplomacy and not conservation. It continued in the talks by invited speakers about the tenuous but crucial survival and preservation of irreplaceable works in both Irish Gaelic and Latin across a millennium. The reverence and expertise in the room was also attuned to the role of fate and the need for a sense of humor. Project leader Pádraig O’Macháin read a fragment from the Book of Leinster, a twelfth-century medieval Irish manuscript, “But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, other poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men!”

Following talks underscored both the rarity and the remarkable endurance through centuries of challenges of the Gaelic language scholarly tradition and of the manuscripts themselves. Our knowledge of these texts and book-making traditions depends in many instances on a single surviving exemplar. For example, the Faddan More psalter, found in a peat bog in 2006, is the only surviving example of the wallet-like type of early medieval binding seen in art of the period.

Library of Congress senior book conservator Katherine Kelly observed, “I was fascinated to hear John describe his meticulous process of documentation for the Faddan More Psalter. It reminded me that in an age of high-tech digital documentation there is still a place for physical tracings, especially when you are trying to align and understand layered book pages. And to hear how one treatment, or one object, can change the trajectory of one’s career.”

Three individual images of a woman, and two men, as they speak from a podium at the Library of Congress.
Speakers included (from left to right) her Excellency Geraldine Byrne Nason, Irish Ambassador to the USA, opening the symposium; project leader Pádraig O’Macháin, Professor of Modern Irish, University College Cork, outlining the history of the Gaelic language scholarly tradition; and John Gillis, Senior Conservator, Trinity College, Dublin, discussing the conservation of the Fadden More Psalter. Photo Credit, Franky Moore.


Over the first day, seven members of the project team shared the development of our analytical approach and visualization tools, findings from our instrumental and codicological examination of the manuscripts’ skins, inks and colorants, evidence of scribal working practices, and the traditional writing implements, inks and colorants used. The project has, to date, examined 42 manuscripts at seven institutions. The scientific information we’ve collected has enabled us to discover how the raw materials were prepared, how the manuscripts were written and decorated, and allows us to contribute to their preservation and legacy.

Meghan and Fenella doing MSI, Cindy doing XRF
Team members collecting multi-spectral images and X-ray fluorescence spectra. Left to right: Fenella France, Meghan Hill, Cindy Connelly Ryan. Photos by PRTD Staff.


Using a combination of non-invasive instruments, we can see traces of how the parchment was prepared—scraped down and stretched—before being cut into individual pages. We can see how the scribe would begin the process of laying out the page, ruling guidelines for the columns, margins, and spacing. We’ve identified what kind of ink they used, and what pigments decorate the pages.

Grayscale images of pages of a book which show markings in the paper below the text visibly seen.
Stowe Missal, 8th century, Royal Irish Academy, Ireland. Left: Ultraviolet multispectral image showing evidence of parchment scraping. Right: Infrared multispectral imaging showing scribal ruled lines. Imaging performed by PRTD Staff.


Most pigments used throughout the manuscripts were mineral colors – orpiment, vermillion, red lead, and azurite. In one instance we found a doodle in the margin painted in woad, a European plant that yields indigo, and in another we found the use of orchil, a purple dye made from lichens. Both of these colorants were likely made from locally sourced plants and lichens.

A close up of a red and yellow braided design on a book page
An example of orpiment and lead red ornamentation from the Book of Ui Mhaine, 14th century ( Royal Irish Academy, Ireland. Imaging performed by PRTD Staff.
Left: Close up of a bird drawing on a page of a book; Right Close up of a decorative portion of a book page where different colors can be seen.
Left: Use of indigo in the Book of Ballymote, 14-15th century, ( Right: Orchil lichen dye used in the Stowe Missal, 8th century ( Imaging performed by PRTD Staff.


Throughout their lifetime, these books didn’t sit idle on someone’s shelves. They were used to and inform. They were handled. They were paged through, annotated, and added to; hidden, lost, gifted, sold, or stolen. And as such, they’re not in the most pristine condition. Apart from natural degradation, we see areas of staining which has caused some of the text to become illegible.  Leaves or whole sections have been lost, blank areas cut out for re-use, and new texts added in the open spaces.

Multi-spectral imaging is a phenomenal tool for being able to detect the chemical remnants of the materials we can no longer see and make them readable again. In one instance, we found more than expected. The small page from the Book of Ui Mhaine, below, finishes the text from the previous page and has been cut down from the full-sized page, likely so the parchment could be used elsewhere. The back of the page was originally blank, but over years acquired lines of poetry and additional annotations. Spectrally, it looks like there are four different hands on this page alone. But even more interesting was the writing at the bottom that had completely faded. We had no idea it was there. But as you can see, there’s notation of miscellaneous calculations, with a date. Image processing confirms that the ink of the calculations matches the ink further up on the page.

Elemental fingerprinting of inks can distinguish one batch of iron gall ink from another. In 1816, a fifteenth century collection of saints’ lives and other texts now known as the Book of Lismore was “beautified” by a binder, who helpfully boasts of this in a dated passage added on a blank page. He was pleased enough with the book to keep several sections when returning it to the owner, but that’s a tale in and of itself….. ink analysis with x-ray fluorescence has let us distinguish at least one campaign (likely, more) of marginal notes, section titles, colored in-fill, and additional large initials added to the original text and decorative initials, despite some similarities in style.

Three different images of the same page under different light sources and false coloring; the first image looks like "normal" page to the naked eye, whereas the second two both have bright green, teal, and yellows throughout indicating different textures and inks on the page.
Ui Mhaine, 14th century, Royal Irish Academy, Ireland. ( Left: Zoomed out to show scale. False-color images processed to enhance faded text. Middle: back of the page. Right: Close up showing calculations. Images by PRTD Staff.
Close up of a page of a book with with a decorative text in the center of a page full of normal text.
An excerpt from the Book of Lismore, 15th C., University College Cork, Ireland, showing a two-word section title for the life of St. Brigit and a large initial, both added later to the original text passages. Imaging performed by PRTD Staff.


The second day of the symposium included additional presentations for Preservation staff, meetings with Library of Congress curators, and visits to the book conservation lab, PRTD’s lab spaces, and CHARM for our Irish partners, providing multiple opportunities for free- flowing discussion.

The Inks & Skins project has already spurred PRTD to stretch the limits of our non-invasive analytical methods for distinguishing writing inks, giving us improved tools that benefit the study of our own collections. Ongoing results from the project continue to expand scholars’ understanding of the creation and material aspects of late medieval Gaelic manuscripts, relating them to earlier manuscript-making traditions and to contemporary works from other European schools.

“We embark on projects like Inks & Skins to make connections between Library staff and colleagues who can offer insights and viewpoints that enrich our collective understanding of our collections and their history. It never fails that research on these artifacts leads us to audiences we didn’t expect to meet and enlarges the circle of people who feel engaged with cultural materials, and who care about their future. It was such a thrill to make connections between diplomats, scholars, scientists, and conservators, because of our shared enthusiasm for these works.”  – Jake Nadal, Director for Preservation

You can view the recording of the Inks & Skins seminar here.

Team members stand in a lab space reviewing a piece of parchment skin together.
Team members Pádraig O’Macháin, John Gillis, Anna Hoffmann, and Fenella France discuss aspects of traditional parchment preparation with PRTD staff in the CHARM reference collection. Photo Credit, Franky Moore.


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