Can You Make A Psalter Out Of Alphabet Soup?

John Gillis can. Well, almost.

John Gillis with some of the separated pages of the psalter.

Gillis is the book conservator who has been in charge of restoring the Faddan More Psalter, which was found in a peat bog in Ireland in July 2006. Where the bog came in contact with the codex – mostly around the edges – it was preserved, but only about 10-15% of the codex survived this way. Most of it had putrified into a liquid mass of decomposed vellum and individual, floating, perfectly preserved letters, which were protected from decomposing because they were written in an iron-based ink. Alphabet soup.

What the psalter looked like when it was found.

I was lucky enough to hear Gillis speak about his work at a talk he gave at Magdalene College (Cambridge) in early December. The work that went in to conserving the psalter is absolutely unimaginable.

Everything started by just looking at the remains, trying to figure out which parts were which, and even constructing a quire map, or a map of which pages were bound together, and in what order. Then, he and the other conservators began carefully peeling away the pages of the psalter one by one, and recording their position in the codex.

They also had to clear off the dirt from the pieces, using what Gillis referred to as a “chemical sponge,” a solvent solution which would clear away the dirt but not affect the ink. Most of the resultant pages looked like the ones in the bin in the top photo: a bit of vellum around the edges, maybe some lines of text. The page that survived best looks like this:

This was not even the difficult bit. Vellum, apparently, shrinks to 75% of its size if it is wet and dried, so the biggest challenge was finding a way to dry it without shrinking it. Below is an image, mined from Gillis & Read’s conservation report (the PDF is available on the National Museum of Ireland website), of the shrinkage. The marker outline shows the original size of the piece of vellum being tested, and the piece in the centre is the result after drying:

After experimenting on other scraps of vellum, they finally found a technique that left them with only an unprecedented 2-5% shrinkage. This involved replacing the water content of the psalter with ethanol (in order to reduce surface tension) and then drying it by placing it in a vacuum packing bag between sheets of blottings.

Then, they had to attack the alphabet goo. Gillis painstakingly picked out letter by letter, separating them out and laying them flat. Of course, since the original pages would have had writing on both sides, he often found letters stuck together back to back. If you have sharp eyes, you can see some of the laid-out letters at the back of the table in the top photo.

The last part of the text to deal with were bits of the pages that had been ripped off and dislocated. Gillis first worked out an average word count per page then, using a modern edition of the psalms, worked out what texts should have gone on each page. So, for example, if he could see the beginning of psalm 83 on a page (which, by the way, was the only bit of text visible when the psalter was dug up), he knew that that page must have contained the rest of psalm 83, then psalm 84, etc, and using the average word count per page he could figure out how much of psalm 84 could have fit on that folio. He would then have found the piece that contained the right amount of psalm 84, and put it in the right place.

All of this was meticulously documented throughout the process, with detailed photographs recording exactly where in the original mass each piece was found.

One of the most exciting aspects of this find is that it was still in its original binding, which is made of leather, lined with papyrus, and decorated with three buttons. It is rare to find medieval bindings – most books are rebound numerous times throughout their histories – and this binding in particular raises interesting questions about how books were regarded (Gillis found what look like doodles or practice knot patterns on the cover, suggesting that it had lain around in a scriptorium and been used as a working surface), what book covers in general would have looked like (Gillis found some interesting comparisons between the cover and some books depicted in medieval artwork), and the relationship between book production in Ireland and on the continent (a papyrus-lined cover in Ireland?), among others.

The amount of work that went into conserving this psalter is terrifying. I can’t decide if Gillis has the coolest, or most painful, job in the world.

If you want to find out more about this project, take a look at the National Museum of Ireland website, and read Gillis’ guest post on Kristine Rose’s blog. He also managed to do all of this while being followed around by an RTE film crew, which recently released the documentary “Treasure of the Bogs” about his efforts.

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One Response to Can You Make A Psalter Out Of Alphabet Soup?

  1. I agree that it is difficult to decide if this must be the coolest job or the most difficult, but definitely you can’t get bored doing that!! and must be rewarding to help to recover it and revealing interesting things in the process.

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