The Conservation and Preservation of Greek Manuscripts at Magdalen College

11 November 2015

For the past three years, the conservation team at Oxford Conservation Consortium has been repairing/stabilising Magdalen’s collection of Greek manuscripts. The final three manuscripts had major structural damage and were unsafe for consultation by readers. With support from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and the Marc Fitch Fund, Jane Eagan, Maria Kalligerou, and Katerina Powell have started treating these volumes, all patristic texts dating from the eleventh century, rebound in the early seventeenth century in Oxford roll bindings.

MS GR 1, St John Chrysostum’s Commentary on Gospel of John, has been documented and photographed before treatment and the binding has been dismantled, showing the earlier eleventh-century sewing stations and V-cuts. The text-block has been cleaned and the losses in the leaves due to ink corrosion have been supported with remoistenable gelatine-coated tissue. Old adhesive residue has been removed from the spinefolds, and repairs to the spinefolds have been started.

MS Gr 1 fol 1r
MS GR 1: fol. 1r areas of ink corrosion supported on verso with remoistenable tissue
MS Gr 1 quires
MS GR 1: in quires, with adhesive residue partially removed from spinefolds.

The two-year project to conserve three eleventh-century Greek manuscripts is progressing. MS GR 1 has been prepared for resewing by Jane Eagan, which will be completed by the end of 2015. MS GR 5 is also ready for resewing, by Maria Kalligerou, which will be done in January 2016. The volumes will then have their seventeenth-century boards reattached, as the final stage in the project. Work on MS GR 3 by Katerina Powell will begin in early January 2016. We hope to complete the project by September 2016 as planned.

We will be taking non-destructive samples of parchment material (eraser crumbs) for analysis as part of the project, CodeX, run by the Biology, Archaeology, and Chemistry sections of the University of York. This collaboration should yield interesting results which will feed into the cataloguing records which are being created for these volumes. Through protein mass spectrometry, we will find out which species of animal the parchment is made from – this is not always clear from the observation of hair follicle patterns. MS GR 5 has earlier Byzantine parchment patches, and it will be useful to know whether these are from the same animal species as the leaves. Unfortunately this testing cannot accurately date the parchment. The method used is to extract the protein from crumbs of eraser, which is commonly used by conservators in cleaning. Other interesting information is emerging from the conservation treatment of these volumes; MS GR 1 has evidence of thread tackets at head and tail, showing how the quires were held together during writing, and both MS GR 1 and 5 have visible marking up of the sewing stations by the early binder.

We have had several visits from book conservators working in other institutions, interested in discussing parchment repair using cold gelatine mousse as the adhesive, as well as the condition of the manuscripts and treatment aims.

MS Gr 1 tacket
MS GR 1: thread from a quire tacket, a loop of thread over the tail edge keeping the four bifolia of the fourth quire of MS GR. 1 together, during writing.
MS Gr 1 Byzantine slits
MS GR 1: slits made when Byzantine sewing stations or positions were laid out by the earlier binder. These were not used, and the V-shaped nicks eventually used are visible closer to the head/tail edges of the text-block.