Condition Assessment

The first thing Rachael did was to define the types of damage present in the parchment sheets and to determine the grade of deterioration. The fire and water have almost destroyed the book and the sheets left are badly damaged. The different types of damage and extent of each are recorded.
The most obvious one present in all the sheets is the planar distortion of the surface. Some of the creases are so stiff (due to the heavy gelatinisation) that it will be impossible to flatten them to any better degree.
These distortions are also caused by the heat of the fire which has shrunk the parchment. As a reference, we have taken a picture of a letter P present in the same area as another P. The only difference is that one P on the parchment was affected by the heat at a different grade than the other P, where the parchment has shrunk and is less than half its original size!

Different size letters P

Two letters P of different size due to parchment reaction to heat

Creases and tears are found in various areas, mostly on the edges of the sheet.

Creases and tears are present in most of the vellum sheets.

Creases and tears are present in most of the parchment sheets.

Some sheets have calcite on the surface; this is a typical degradation product of parchment that has been subjected to moisture and high temperatures. Calcite is present within the structure of the parchment, but, under these conditions, migrates to the surface.

The white powder on the surface of the sheet is calcite.

The white powder on the surface of the sheet is calcite.

Another type of damage is severe gelatinisation. Gelatinisation is a degradation process catalysed by high temperature in which the collagen changes its structure irreversibly (denaturation). We have rated the damage in terms of severity at G1, G2 or G3. All of the gelatinisation recorded was rated G2 (full glass layer) or G3 (full penetration of parchment- transparent).

Gelatinization rating G2: the parchment has stiffened and started to become translucent.

Gelatinisation rating G2: the parchment has stiffened and started to become translucent.

Gelatinization rating G3: the parchment has deteriorated into pure gelatine.

Gelatinisation rating G3: the parchment has deteriorated into pure gelatine.

There are some areas where the parchment is so curled that the text is hidden between the folds.

Folded and curled parchment is hiding the text.

Folded and curled parchment is hiding the text.

The metallogallic inks, presumably due to the heat, have darkened greatly and from the original brown have become almost black. In some areas the ink is flaking off and in some other parts it has completely flaked off leaving a lighter colour on the parchment.

The burnt ink is flaking off the surface.

The burnt ink is flaking off the surface.

Traces of the ink applied on the surface of the support.

Traces of the ink applied on the surface of the support.

Last, but not least, you can’t miss out the dirt and stains in this whole collection of different types of damage.

Dirt and stains.

Dirt and stains.

This job is going to be very challenging, let’s see what Rachael will come up with!

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Physical Evidence

This, so far, is what we know about the Great Parchment Book:
The book is made of 165 folios and is stored in 19 boxes.

There are also a lot of fragments which, at this stage, are impossible to place in any of the pages which survived the fire in 1786.

Light brown ink line

The light brown ink line which runs vertically along the left and right margin of the written area.

The pages are about A4 size (295×210 mm). On a closer look at the surface of the pages, calf skin may have been used to make the parchment. It was very difficult to find the traces of the hair follicles since most of the pages have a thick layer of gelatine on the surface.
There are no traces of either the binding format or of the sewing structure. Although the fire and the water have damaged most of the document’s surface, the worst damages are found on the spine fold of the pages.
Writing area: the page is ruled with a different ink than the one used for writing: a light brown line runs vertically on the sides of the written area.

Light lines are present horizontally as a ruling guide

Light lines are present horizontally as a ruling guide

Detail of the ink used for writing

Detail of the ink used for writing

A different ink, possibly a lead pen, was used for ruling the horizontal lines. It is really difficult to detect the latter and it even looks as though just some lines were ruled, not all of them.
The media used to write is a metallogallic ink.
The Great Parchment Book is written in Secretary Hand. This was a script which began to be used in England in the sixteenth century and continued until the late seventeenth century. Scripts evolve continuously and this is a fairly late example of Secretary Hand, when the script was already starting to incorporate more rounded, Roman, characters. This makes the script of the Great Parchment Book much more accessible and readable than pure, early Secretary Hand.
Looking through the pages it seems that different hands have written the text.

The next thing to do is to assess the condition of the parchment sheets. We will attempt to cover this in our next posts.