BPG Parchment Examination and Documentation

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This page covers the examination and documentation of parchment. See also: Parchment, Parchment Condition Problems, Parchment Conservation Treatment, Parchment Housing and Storage, and Parchment Parchment Historic Treatment Methods and Materials.

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Copyright 2023. The Book and Paper Group Wiki is a publication of the Book and Paper Group of the American Institute for Conservation. It is published as a convenience for the members of the Book and Paper Group. Publication does not endorse nor recommend any treatments, methods, or techniques described herein. Information on researching with the wiki and citing the BPG Wiki can be found on the Reference and Bibliography Protocols page. The BPG Wiki coordinators can be reached at bookandpapergroup.wiki@gmail.com.

Cite this page:

BPG Parchment Examination and Documentation. 2023. Book and Paper Group Wiki. American Institute for Conservation (AIC). Accessed March 29, 2023. https://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/BPG_Parchment_Examination_and_Documentation

Species Identification in Parchment[edit | edit source]

Determining that an artifact is indeed made from parchment (and not, for example, heavily treated paper made to look like parchment [need link for this]) is essential before beginning treatment. It is also helpful to know the animal type from which the parchment is made and certain aspects about its method of manufacture so that one will be able to anticipate how the skin will react under specific treatment procedures. For example, for parchment made from modern flesh split sheepskin rather than a skin with an intact grain layer the conservator would know in advance to use caution in certain drying, mending and mounting procedures that might put undue tension on such an inherently weak type of parchment.

Visual identification[edit | edit source]

Vnoucek (2021) does an excellent job describing the difficulty of distinguishing calf skin parchment, largely regarded as the best quality parchment from the Late Antique to Medieval ages, from well-prepared sheepskin parchment.

The characteristic features of parchment, which confirm its animal origin, can usually be recognized under close examination with a hand lens or a microscope. These features include the follicle pattern, veining, natural scars and bruises, and fat deposits in certain skins. Often the follicle pattern is more pronounced across bony areas of the animal, such as along the ribs and spine, and depending on the species the hair follicles may be spaced closer together in these areas than elsewhere. The irregular edges of a parchment sheet may reflect the outer perimeters of a skin, where a natural curve follows the outline of the animal's leg. Particularly stiff and horny areas in a given sheet may represent the outer ends of the skin, shoulders or butt, whereas weaker, more fleshy areas usually come from the axillae (armpit) and belly of the animal. (Many of these features are more thoroughly described and illustrated in Cains 1992.)

Raking, transmitted, and ultraviolet light often help to make these features more prominent. Ultraviolet light in particular often shows fluorescence of natural fats in the skin, as well as other processing substances, although the reliability of the technique is uncertain. It has, however, proved useful in the identification of tannins which were applied to the surface of early Jewish parchments such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Reed 1972.)

Analytical Identification[edit | edit source]

  • Peptide ID, DNA analysis [cursory summary of available techniques]

While visual identification of the animal origins of parchment are usually sufficient, it is imprecise. "This method relies heavily on the subjective experience and training of the user, which can lead to errors (for example, many catalogued sheepskin parchments are classified as vellum) as natural biological variation can often lead to misidentification," (Fiddyment et al. 2019). Analysis of proteins or DNA in parchment fibers can be much more accurate, and may even assist in determining the origin or provenance of an object.

Analytical methods of examination usually rely on samples that are taken from the artifact. Cross-sections of parchment can be examined under the light microscope and with scanning electron microscopy (SEM). The identification of protein using the biuret test can be performed on a sample; however, in using this test, one cannot distinguish between real parchment and a paper that was heavily sized with gelatin (see Spot Tests). In that situation, other methods of analysis are recommended. If a very small sliver of sample can be taken, a simple flame test on true parchment will result in the pungent odor of burnt protein. This test requires no expensive analytical equipment or lab.

Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) analysis can be used to non-destructively differentiate between parchment (protein) and paper (cellulose) even when the paper has been heavily sized with a protein size. A paper coated on both sides would be distinguished by a higher proportion of calcium or other opaque white pigment. (Certain types of parchment documents and most parchment book covers were heavily dressed with chalk on the flesh side and would therefore give high calcium readings with FTIR analysis. It is more unlikely, however, for these objects to be mistaken for paper during visual examination.

Scanning Electron Microscopy/Energy Dispersion Spectroscopy (SEM/EDS) analysis has been used to compare old and new parchment skin. In particular, levels of chlorine (possibly used as a disinfectant) appeared to be higher in some new 20th century samples than in older (18th and 19th century) parchment. (DvdR)

Features of Parchment[edit | edit source]

Parchment can have distinct features and characteristics that are either the result of physical experiences of the animal that produced the skin or of the manufacture of the parchment. These should not be mistaken for historical damages that have occurred to the artifact and should be preserved (ideally, not altered) during treatment.

See Vnoucek (2005), Clarkson (1992).

Vnoucek (2019) describes in detail the parchment making process for the Codex Amiatinus (late 7th-early 8th centuries).

Marks of biology[edit | edit source]

The best medieval manuscripts were produced with extremely high quality parchment that bore little evidence of its animal origins. More often, books were produced with whatever parchment was available or affordable. This parchment made a perfectly adequate writing surface but might have contained artifacts of the animal's physiology that would have otherwise been removed by the parchment maker (through longer or more careful periods of scraping) or by the person cutting the bifolia (and avoiding "blemishes").

Follicle patterns[edit | edit source]

animal source; hair and flesh sides of the skin; spine direction of the animal as oriented on the sheet

Axilla[edit | edit source]

Bone shadows[edit | edit source]

Scars and holes[edit | edit source]

Scars or wounds in the animal skin would occasionally open up while the skin was wet and taught during the scraping portion of the parchment manufacturing process. Scribes often simply wrote around the holes.

Marks of manufacture[edit | edit source]

Surface characteristics[edit | edit source]

surface characteristics (degree and evenness of scraping, napped or smooth, presence of surface coatings, etc.);

Scrape marks[edit | edit source]

The process of making a sheet of parchment from animal skin often left distinctive marks from the rounded knife used to scrape the skin clean.

Holes or manufacturer’s repairs[edit | edit source]

During the manufacturing process, it was not uncommon for scars or wounds in the skin to split open due to being stretched on the frame. It is also possible for the lunar knife to have cut through the skin, though it is difficult to tell the difference. Any area of weakness could split under the tension and form a rounded hole. These holes could be left open, often with a slight ridge forming around the opening. These holes often appear in the margins of manuscripts but can also be found in areas of text in books where economic concerns were prioritized over aesthetic ones. Holes were occasionally covered with a parchment patch, but scribes also wrote around the open hole, simply skipping over it.

Alternatively to leaving the hole open, it could have been sewn closed by the parchment maker while the skin was still wet.

Marks of use and reuse[edit | edit source]

Scribal marks[edit | edit source]

Features relating to use by scribe, artist, bookbinder: pricking holes - size and shape; ruling lines - made with stylus, metalpoint or pen and ink; underdrawing - usually in thin pen lines or washes; plate marks made by printing; marginal notes/instructions by scribe;

Binding marks[edit | edit source]

impressions made by sewing thread in gutter of book - often still visible in intact bifolia or single manuscript leaves; sewing holes - made for attachment of fabric interleaving to illuminated manuscript leaves in bound books.

Folds[edit | edit source]

Large documents such as deeds and indentures were folded for storage. When unfolded, areas of soiling can indicate which areas of the document were on the outside when folded.

Repairs[edit | edit source]

Palimpsests[edit | edit source]

Recycled fragments[edit | edit source]

Marks of damage[edit | edit source]

Tears[edit | edit source]

While parchment is more difficult to tear than paper, tears can occur.

Accretions[edit | edit source]

Water damage[edit | edit source]

Dyed parchment[edit | edit source]

Parchment codex pages have been dyed different colors, often to heighten the effects of writing with gold ink (chrysography).

Blue Parchment

One of the most famous manuscripts with blue parchment is the Blue Quran, an early Islamic manuscript Kufic script. Porter (2018) describes its material characterization.

Purple Parchment

Purple parchment was use frequently in western Europe in religious texts. Quandt (2016, 122) describes two sources for dye: Mediterranean mollusks and orchil, a European lichen. Both were processed through fermentation to produce a deep purple. The minute amount of product that came from a single shellfish made that dye much more expensive. Quandt (2016) describes both late antique and early medieval European manuscripts with purple parchment leaves. Hofmann (2020) describes in depth the analysis and treatment of purple parchment leaves of the Vienna Genesis.

Black Parchment

The parchment of some Flemish manuscripts was dyed black with iron gall ink, as seen in the Black Book of Hours as described by Trujillo (2020).

Imaging of Parchment[edit | edit source]

[reference PMG Examination and Documentation as needed]

Visible Light[edit | edit source]

Ultraviolet[edit | edit source]

Infrared[edit | edit source]

False Color Infrared[edit | edit source]

False color IR photography can be used as a "quick and dirty" technique to identify medieval pigments if more precise methods involving elemental analysis are not available. The technique was originally developed for film cameras using colored filters. With DSLR cameras, a modified camera body with the internal filters removed is required plus additional lenses to allow certain IR spectra through. The specifics of this technique are detailed in the False Color Infrared section of "Digital Imaging Workflow for Treatment Documentation" from the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress (Edwards and Oey, 2018).

The resulting color shift from the normal light image to the FCIR image can indicate which pigments were used and sometimes differentiate between pigments of the same color. Below is a table of some commonly occurring pigments in the medieval palette and their color shifts (from Douma 2008, "Pigments through the Ages").

Table 1. Commonly occurring medieval pigments and their color shifts from normal light photography to FCIR.
Pigment Normal light False Color IR
Vermilion red yellow
Red lead red/orage yellow/brown
Madder red/purple orange
Orpiment yellow pale yellow/white
Verdigris green dark blue
Azurite blue dark blue
Ultramarine blue red

References[edit | edit source]

Cains, Anthony. 1992. "The Vellum of the Book of Kells." The Paper Conservator 16: 50-61.

Chabries, Douglas M., Steven W. Booras, and Gregory H. Bearman. 2003. "Imaging the Past: Recent Applications of Multispectral Imaging Technology to Deciphering Manuscripts." Antiquity 77 (296): 359–72.

Clarkson, Christopher. 1992. "Rediscovering Parchment: The Nature of the Beast." The Paper Conservator 16 (1): 5–26.

Douma, Michael, curator. 2008. "Pigments through the Ages." 2008.

Down, Jane L., Gregory S. Young, R. Scott Williams, and Maureen A. MacDonald. 2002. "Analysis of the Archimedes Palimpsest." Studies in Conservation 47 (sup3): 52–58.

Easton, R.L., K.T. Knox, and W.A. Christens-Barry. 2003. "Multispectral Imaging of the Archimedes Palimpsest." In 32nd Applied Imagery Pattern Recognition Workshop, 2003. Proceedings., 111–16. Washington, DC, USA: IEEE.

Edwards, H. G. M., D. W. Farwell, E. M. Newton, F. Rull Perez, and S. Jorge Villar. 2001. "Application of FT-Raman Spectroscopy to the Characterisation of Parchment and Vellum, I; Novel Information for Paleographic and Historiated Manuscript Studies." Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy 57 (6): 1223–34.

Edwards, Howell G.M., and Fernando Rull Perez. 2004. "Application of Fourier Transform Raman Spectroscopy to the Characterization of Parchment and Vellum. II, Effect of Biodeterioration and Chemical Deterioration on Spectral Interpretation." Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 35: 8–9.

Edwards, Gwenanne, and Mary Oey, eds. 2018. "Digital Imaging Workflow for Treatment Documentation." Library of Congress.

See also: https://www.loc.gov/preservation/resources/ImageDoc/

Fiddyment, Sarah, Matthew D. Teasdale, Jiří Vnouček, Élodie Lévêque, Annelise Binois, and Matthew J. Collins. 2019. "So You Want to Do Biocodicology? A Field Guide to the Biological Analysis of Parchment." Heritage Science 7 (1): 35.

Giacometti, Alejandro, Alberto Campagnolo, Lindsay Macdonald, Simon Mahony, Melissa Terras, Stuart Robson, Tim Weyrich, and Adam D. Gibson. 2012. "Cultural Heritage Destruction: Documenting Parchment Degradation via Multispectral Imaging." In Electronic Workshops in Computing, 301–8.

Giacometti, Alejandro, Alberto Campagnolo, Lindsay MacDonald, Simon Mahony, Stuart Robson, Tim Weyrich, Melissa Terras, and Adam Gibson. 2015. "The Value of Critical Destruction: Evaluating Multispectral Image Processing Methods for the Analysis of Primary Historical Texts." Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 32 (1): 101–22.

Gippert, Jost. 2007. "The Application of Multispectral Imaging in the Study of Caucasian Palimpsests." Bulletin of the Georgian National Academy of Sciences 175: 168–79.

Hofmann, Christa, ed. 2020. The Vienna Genesis. Material Analysis and Conservation of a Late Antique Illuminated Manuscript on Purple Parchment. Wien: Böhlau Verlag.Porter, Cheryl. 2018. “The Materiality of the Blue Quran: A Physical and Technological Study.” In The Aghlabids and Their Neighbors, edited by Glaire D. Anderson, Corisande Fenwick, and Miriam Rosser-Owen. Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section 1, The Near and Middle East: 122. Leiden: Brill.

Kireyeva, Vilena. 1999. "Examination of Parchment in Byzantine Manuscripts." Restaurator 20 (1): 39–47.

MacDonald, L. 2013. "Multispectral Imaging of Degraded Parchment." In Computational Color Imaging. CCIW 2013. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, edited by S. Tominaga, R. Schettini, and A. Trémeau. Vol. 7786. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.

Marengo, Emilio, Marcello Manfredi, Orfeo Zerbinati, Elisa Robotti, Eleonora Mazzucco, Fabio Gosetti, Greg Bearman, Fenella France, and Pnina Shor. 2011. "Technique Based on LED Multispectral Imaging and Multivariate Analysis for Monitoring the Conservation State of the Dead Sea Scrolls." Analytical Chemistry 83 (17): 6609–18.

Oprescu, Ashlyn, Orit Rosengarten, and Pnina Shor. 2018. "Multispectral Imaging and the Digitization of the Dead Sea Scrolls." Book and Paper Group Annual 37: 71–76.

Porter, Cheryl. 2018. "The Materiality of the Blue Quran: A Physical and Technological Study." In The Aghlabids and Their Neighbors, edited by Glaire D. Anderson, Corisande Fenwick, and Miriam Rosser-Owen. Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section 1, The Near and Middle East: 122. Leiden: Brill.

Quandt, Abigail B. 1986. "The Conservation of a 12th Century Illuminated Manuscript on Vellum." The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, Preprints of Papers Presented at the Fourteenth Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois, 21-25 May 1986, 97–113.

Quandt, Abigail B. 2018. "The Purple Codices: A Report on Current and Future Research and Conservation Projects." Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 16: 121–52.

Shor, Pnina, Marcello Manfredi, Greg H. Bearman, Emilio Marengo, Ken Boydston, and William A. Christens-Barry. 2014. "The Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library." Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 2 (2): 71–89.

Tanner, Simon, and Greg Bearman. 2008. "Digitizing the Dead Sea Scrolls." Archiving, 119–23.

Trujillo, Frank. 2020. "The Black Hours at the Morgan Library & Museum." The Morgan Library & Museum. June 29, 2020.

Vnouček, Jiří. 2005. "The Manufacture of Parchment for Writing Purposes and the Observation of the Signs of Manufacture Surviving in Old Manuscripts." Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 8: 74–92.

Vnouček, Jiří. 2019. "The Parchment of the Codex Amiatinus in the Context of Manuscript Production in Northumbria Around the End of the Seventh Century: Identification of the Animal Species and Methods of Manufacture of the Parchment as Clues to the Old Narrative?" Journal of Paper Conservation 20 (1–4): 179–204.

Vnouček, Jiří. 2021. "Not All That Shines like Vellum Is Necessarily So." Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 17: 27–60.

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[Copied from original BPG Parchment page.]

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