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

NSOn a summer’s day in Tipperary where peat was being dug up from a bog, a button appeared from the freshly cut ground. The discovery set out on a five-year journey of preservation to restore and preserve what lies beyond: a 1,200-year-old Psalm book in its original cover.

Marshes across Europe have dumped all kinds of relics of the ancient past, from naturally preserved corpses to bowls containing butter over a thousand years ago, but the 2006 discovery of an entire medieval manuscript, long buried in a damp time capsule, was inconclusive. Unprecedented, said the National Gallery of Ireland.

The flute cap is nearly intact and complete with three buttons Photo: National Museum of Ireland

Opening the book upon discovery to reveal the Latin words In the valley of tears (In the Valley of Tears) which he defined as the Psalter. A particularly unexpected feature was the vegetable-tanned leather covering with papyrus lining, suggesting that the monks could have had trade links with Egypt.

“It still amaze me far away,” said John Gillis, chief manuscript preservationist at Trinity College Dublin, home of the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh, and 450 other medieval Latin manuscripts. “It was by far the most challenging and interesting project I’ve ever done – and to put that in context, I’m surrounded by these iconic manuscripts.”

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

Ten years after it was on display at the National Gallery in Dublin, the Book of Fadan More Psalms is one of Ireland’s top 10 treasures and is now the subject of a 340-page book from the institution documenting every stage of the “terrifying” preservation process for future researchers.

“The fact that such a fragile organism has survived for a thousand years in humid conditions, the fact that it has been observed … and the fact that the complete bifolio has survived and allowed Gilles to ascertain the manuscript details of the Psalter, all go largely against the odds,” said Maeve Sikora. , the keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Gallery who supported Gillis in the work.

Memorizing the Psalter - The lines of the Psalms are clearly visible
Memorizing the Psalter – The lines of the Psalms are clearly visible Photo: National Museum of Ireland

The process of fixing the book out of the swamp, drying it, and then loosening and opening the pages where possible was laborious. Archaeologists placed a “collection” of mashed pages, hides, and turf in a large cold room in the museum at 4C. But there was no guide in the world to instruct Gillis on how to do the job.

“I spent the first three months getting the mass out of the fridge, bringing it to my lab and staring at it, trying to make sense of it before I could start any sort of intrusion,” Gillis said, because once it bothers you, you actually lose the evidence.

“Although the swamp was responsible for its really bad condition, it was also responsible for locking it in its original state.”

A page displayed for the first time 1200 years ago
A page that was first displayed 1200 years ago. Photo: National Museum of Ireland

Initial screening was limited in order to mitigate further trauma. CT scans and X-rays to find 3D structures were excluded due to concerns that they might accelerate deterioration.

After experimenting with advanced versions of freeze drying, vacuum sealing, and blotting paper drying, Gillis settled on a method of dewatering using a vacuum chamber installed in a museum lab for four years to reduce shrinkage and rot.

It will take two years before all parts of the newspaper are in a dry, stable condition before the arduous task of disassembly begins, a process chronicled in the book published later this month, The Book of Psalms Acre More, Discovering and Preserving Medieval Treasure.

Letters retrieved from swamp block and slavery
Letters retrieved from swamp block and parchment. Photo: Valerie Dowling/National Museum of Ireland

“It was so terrifying,” Gillis said of the responsibility he felt. “I heard from someone at the British Museum that there was a picture of the mass on the walls in the staff area there with the words ‘If you think you’re having a bad day…’ you had this nerve-wracking scenario of disturbing this physical, which means losing evidence, while the The whole goal was trying to get as much information as possible.”

Many of the spaces between the iron gall letters faded into the swamp, leaving an alphabet soup of several thousand independent letters. It can take months after the drying process to put them together, sequentially on the correct pages.

‘Cluster’ as found in Tipperary Swamp. Photo: National Museum of Ireland

Bonuses will appear when you slowly lift a part, and suddenly a little decoration is underneath, especially the yellow dye they used. And you’ll say, “Wow, I’m the first person to see this in 1,200 years,” Gillis said. So this kind of privilege made all the sleepless nights and brain fatigue worthwhile.

“It was the purest save I’ve ever done. No fix, I didn’t attach anything new. All I did was pick it up and stabilize it.”

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