John shared with us his particular torment, a project that has occupied him daily for over six years, a highly deteriorated psalter uncovered from a peat bog in 2006. He still has his sense of humor, even though he freely admitted the project was pretty nightmarish at times. The psalter was uncovered from a commercial peat bog in July of 2006. Research suggests that the sphagnum moss in these bogs is what helps organic material survive so much better there than in regular soil, as the moss has a tanning effect on the organic material.
Once the psalter was uncovered, work stopped in order to rescue the fragile book. The psalter was covered in a wet layer of peat, then silicone Mylar and finally cellocast resin bandages were wrapped over the psalter to keep it wet until help arrived. This was exactly the right thing for the bog excavators to do. These men were not archaeologists or conservators themselves, but they knew what to do to keep it stable until conservators could arrive due to extensive museum outreach in the area. Local museums have provided a lot of training in order to help protect the wealth of archaeological materials located in Ireland’s bogs – most of which are commercially owned. Back at the lab in Dublin, the manuscript was kept wet and cold – at 40°C in a walk-in fridge. The media hyperbolically reported the discovery of the Psalter as being an apocalyptic omen due to a misidentification of one of the psalms. Really, psalters like this were used by monastic novices to learn their bible.
John’s first goal was to establish a collation map of the psalter. This usually easy task took two years due to the extensive trauma to the book. The psalter has five quires, 60 folios, no flyleaves, and it does not follow the insular nor the continental tradition of orienting the hair and flesh sides of the parchment folios. As John said, it seems to be “in the best Irish tradition, of completely ad hoc”.
Using a grid system, John mapped out each chunk of parchment before putting it through the drying process. He used a database to compile the veritable mountains of information the treatment of the Psalter generated. They cleaned the manuscript with water, removing thousands and thousands of seed pods with tweezers. One of the most challenging parts of the project was the “letter fishing” the group had to go through, to snag words and letters and letter-bits out of the bog. The tanning agents in the iron gall ink tanned the vellum so that frequently words or letters… or letter-parts would survive when the rest of the inner manuscript did not. In general, the inner portion of the manuscript was more likely to dissolve than the outer edges, which were exposed the tanning elements of the bog, would be preserved.
After cleaning, the Psalter page fragments underwent hyper spectral scanning, which John and his team undertook in an effort to read some of the illegible areas of the manuscript. After scanning, the fragments were ready to be dried.
The process that creates vellum creates a lot of tension in the material, and that tension shows itself most dramatically when drying wet vellum…. in intense shrinking and warp. John’s talk mostly focused on the de-watering of the vellum. Using some old historical vellum flyleaves the he had laying around the lab, John recreated putrefied vellum on which to test various drying methods. He and his crew kept track of changes in color, size and flexibility. After months of testing, they decided to proceed with a solvent bath of alcohol. They needed to restrain the vellum while it dried to minimize dimensional changes. The solvent exchange took place in a vacuum sealed bag that exerted even pressure against the entire fragment. This neatly solved the problem of restraining fragile vellum.
The National Museum of Ireland has a page devoted to the Faddan More Psalter project, with the full report on the psalter freely available.