‘It was terrifying’: the journey of an ancient book from the Irish bog to the museum’s treasure | Museums


ohn summer day in Tipperary, as peat was being extracted from a bog, a bud sprouted from the freshly cut earth. The discovery sparked a five-year conservation journey to retrieve and preserve what lay beyond: a 1,200-year-old book of psalms in its original cover.

Bogs across Europe have thrown away all manner of relics from the ancient past, from naturally preserved bodies to containers with butter that are over a millennia old, but the discovery in 2006 of a manuscript from the entire early Middle Ages, buried in a damp time capsule for so long was unprecedented, the National Museum of Ireland said.

The cover of the psalter, almost intact, complete with three buttons Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

The book opened upon discovery to reveal Latin words in ualle lacrimarum (in the Valley of Tears), which identified it as a book of psalms. One particularly unexpected feature was the vegetable-tanned leather cover with a papyrus reed lining, suggesting that the monks may have had commercial ties to Egypt.

“It always amazes me,” said John Gillis, chief curator of manuscripts at Trinity College Dublin, which houses the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh and 450 other medieval Latin manuscripts. “It was by far the most exciting and interesting project I have ever undertaken – and to put that in context, I am surrounded by these iconic manuscripts.”

John Gillis at work
John Gillis at work. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

Ten years after being on display at the National Museum in Dublin, the Faddan More Psalter is one of Ireland’s top 10 treasures and is now the subject of a 340-page institution book documenting every step of the process of preservation “terrifying” for future academics. .

“The fact that such a fragile organic object survived for a millennium in humid conditions, the fact that it was noticed … and the fact that a complete bifolio survived and allowed Gillis to verify the codicological details of the Psalter are all against the grain. “said Maeve Sikora, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum who supported Gillis in the work.

The pre-conservation psalter - lines of psalms clearly visible
The pre-conservation psalter – lines of psalms clearly visible Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

The process of stabilizing the book out of the bog, drying it, then unhooking and unfolding the pages when possible was laborious. Archaeologists placed the “conglomerate” of crushed pages, leather and turf in a walk-in cold room in the museum at 4C. But there was no manual in the world to guide Gillis on how to go about it.

“I spent the first three months collecting the mass from the refrigerator, bringing it to my lab and looking at it, trying to figure it out before I could start any kind of intervention work. Because once you bother him, you actually lose evidence, ”said Gillis.

“While the bog was responsible for its very poor condition, it was also responsible for locking it down in its original state.”

A page exposed for the first time in 1200 years
A page exposed for the first time in 1200 years. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

The initial examination was limited in order to alleviate further trauma. CT scans and X-rays to find 3D structures have been excluded out of concern that they will accelerate degradation.

After trying sophisticated versions of freeze-drying, vacuum sealing and drying with blotting paper, Gillis opted for a dehydration method using a vacuum chamber installed in the museum’s laboratory for four years to minimize shrinkage and decay. .

It would take two years before all the folio fragments were in a dry and stable condition before the arduous task of dismantling could begin, a process recounted in the book published later this month, The Faddan More Psalter, The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure.

Letters collected from the mass of peat bog and vellum
Letters recovered from the mass of peat bog and vellum. Photograph: Valerie Dowling / National Museum of Ireland

“It was absolutely terrifying,” Gillis said of the responsibility he felt. “I heard from someone at the British Museum that there was a photo of the mace on the walls of a staff area with the words ‘if you think you have a bad day ahead of you ..’ . ”You had this agonizing scenario of disturbing this material, which meant losing evidence, when the goal was to try to get as much information as possible.

Many of the spaces between the iron letters had dissolved in the bog, leaving an alphabet soup of several thousand stand-alone letters. It would take months after the drying process to put them all together, in order on the right pages.

The “built-up area” as found in a Tipperary bog. Photograph: National Museum of Ireland

“The rewards when you slowly lifted a shard and suddenly that little piece of decoration popped up, especially the yellow pigment they were using. It would kind of make you shine, ”said Gillis. “And you’d say, ‘Wow, I’m the first person to see this in 1,200 years. So that kind of privilege made all the sleepless nights and puzzles worthwhile.

“It was the purest conservation I have ever achieved. There is no repair, I have not attached anything new. Everything I have done is captured and stabilized.


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