Understanding skin – Examining the parchment of a 14th century Samaritan manuscript

As part of our current project to conserve the CBL Hebrew collection, I have been working on a large 14th century Samaritan Pentateuch. In the first post about this manuscript I will concentrate on the context in which it was written, and the materials from which it is made.

Heb 752 - Mss

The disbound textblock before conservation.

The Samaritan people are a religious and ethnic group preserving the tradition of copying the Pentateuch in the Samaritan alphabet. The Pentateuch comprises of the first five books of the Hebrew bible/Old Testament, also known as the Five Books of Moses because they are believed to have been dictated by God directly to Moses. The Chester Beatty manuscript codex was written in 1339 AD in Samaritan majuscule Hebrew characters. The primary scribe of this manuscript is believed to have been Abisha ibn Pinhas ibn Joseph.

This manuscript is composed of 28 parchment quires, each made of five bifolios (H: 32cm x W: 51cm). Given its overall size, a very large number of animals have been used to produce the textblock. Earlier this year we provided samples from some of our parchment manuscripts to be tested by the BioArch project at the University of York.

Taking samples

This fascinating project uses minute rubbings from the surface of the parchment to gather collagen which can be analysed with mass spectrometry. The protein within the collagen can be extracted and provide valuable information about the parchment species and its condition.

Analyses from three bifolios and a singleton from this manuscript all confirmed that the parchment is made from sheep skin. This confirmed features seen in my visual examination of the skin characteristics such as size and colour. Follicle patterns, although sometimes visible, can be misleading due to distortion during the production process. The cost of buying the  raw skins, the time spent preparing the parchment, as well as writing the text meant that the cost of production for this manuscript was likely very high and it was probably commissioned by a wealthy devote.

Composite images 3

A natural stretched edge (left) and imperfect keratinised areas (right).

As I worked on this manuscript, I found considerable evidence that the parchment skins were being used economically. Scholars in the field believe that Samaritan scribes were responsible for preparing their own skins and kept even the flawed skins for use, supporting the evidence that the material was a valuable commodity. I found that they had used all areas of the skin that were available, even the hard keratinised extremities of the stretched skins and imperfect or transparent areas.

Single folios were created from any remaining areas of the skin, which were not large enough for full bifolios. In some of the quires a full bifolio is substituted for two single guarded folios. The single folios are always inserted in the middle of the quire between bifolios- this is consistent throughout the manuscript. The quires with guarded folios are usually located in the second half of the codex but no more specific pattern was identified.

Heb 752 - scrapping marks and holes in skin (3)

Holes and cut marks, possibly made during flaying.

I was able to observe a number of large holes throughout the manuscript. These may have been small cuts or imperfections already present in the skin or holes accidentally made during preparation of the skin that have become larger after stretching during preparation of the parchment. Other elements of the parchment manufacturing process are also apparent; the de-hairing of the manuscript appears to have been poorly executed on some of the skins, leaving patches of animal hair in the manuscript, and the scraping of the skins has created both some harsh flay cuts and shaving marks on the parchment, and also unevenness in the thickness of the skins. However there are no sewing repairs in this manuscript, a rather common feature in Samaritan manuscripts.

Heb 752 ff231-240 (11)

Delamination of the skin.

Heb 752 - Assessment (6)

Marks left by the parchment maker’s knife during thinning of the skin.

Although the parchment used in this manuscript is not of the best quality, the collation follows Gregory’s rule, a common medieval practice of collating parchment skins so that when folded and arranged in quires the hair side of the skin faces hair side and the flesh side faces flesh side.

By looking in detail at the parchment, I have tried to understand the scribe’s preparation process. The text appears to be very carefully centred on the page. Most often the skins were prepared for calligraphy by folding the bifolio in half and piercing both layers of parchment with a metal point along the fore-edge. The perforations were made on the folded bifolio. On most bifolios the pricking marks line up but in some cases the parchment has moved, throwing off the alignment while others simply do not align. A metal point was used to score between the marks at each fore-edge, creating blind lines to write on, while leaving a margin at the fore-edge and centre of the bifolio. On single guarded folios, I observed a similar approach with the pricking of the parchment on both the folio and the guard.

Heb 752 - Blind lines

Ruling across a bifolio (left) and pricking marks along the fore-edge of the folio

To create the vertical lines, a pair of marks about one centimetre apart was made at each corner of the folded bifolio by perforating the parchment with a sharp knife. When joined these create vertical blind lines which were used to centre the text in the page.

Heb 752 - different hands and inks used

Heb 752 Scrapping of ink and parchement (2)The decoration in the manuscript is rather sober, in compliance with the Samaritan’s interested solely in the text. Aside from some simple black ink markers throughout the manuscript, there are only a few dividers that separate the text. Those decorated dividers often indicate a change in hand and inks. Most commonly, the ink appears to be a black carbon ink, with possibly some gall inks mixtures. I could observe very little evidence of damage or loss, with the exception of some scraping of entire words, possibly as a way of correcting a mistake.

One folio (120) showed three blind compass circles along the fore-edge. I think they are an unfinished feature on this particular folio as there are no other examples in the manuscript.

Heb 752 f.120 drawn circle (2)

Heb 752 - Trimming lines (1)The uneven trimming of this codex is also worth noting. The scored lines at the edges of the bifolios appear to have been drawn with a metal point being dragged along the parchment, creating small ridges on the surface. The lines were then used as a guide for trimming by the binder.

Another interesting feature of this manuscript is found along the tailedge of folio 144v. A strip of parchment is sewn with a medium thickness red thread and protrudes over the fore-edge of the manuscript where it has been used as a bookmark. The text on this page (Lev. 9:22-10:1) is heavily worn, supposedly from kissing. This is a common occurrence in Samaritan manuscripts, again demonstrating the importance of the written word for the Samaritans.

CBL Heb 752, f.144v

I look forward to posting more about the conservation of this manuscript in the New Year.

Julia Poirier, Book & Paper Conservator

Conserving parchment from the Hebrew manuscript collection

One of the main projects at the CBL this year has been the conservation of the Hebrew manuscript collection, which contains an array of items including pamphlet bindings, Torah scrolls, single codex folios, and bound manuscripts. The majority of this collection is on parchment, with a small percentage on paper. I was allocated a number of items to conserve from the collection, which allowed me develop my knowledge on parchment repair techniques and gain a more informed understanding of this material, which differs from paper immensely.


Single codex folio, Heb 753.5 (c.14th-16th century) was previously stored between glass.

An interesting part of this collection for me was the conservation of three single folios on parchment, which were previously housed in glass enclosures. The first step was to remove the folios from the enclosures by removing the tape sealing the two sheets of glass together. A scalpel was used to score across the edges of the tape to begin dismounting.

Once the folios were removed from the glass treatment began, which involved tape and adhesive removal and repairs to weaknesses and areas of loss using Japanese tissue and isinglass (5% solution applied with a brush). Isinglass is a pure gelatine made from the swim bladder of the sturgeon fish and it was selected as the adhesive due to its strength and its sympathetic nature with another protein-based material.


Due to the reactive nature of parchment, it was vital to keep the folio gently weighted during treatments.

The final step was to rehouse the folios, which for me was the most challenging yet fascinating part of treating these folios. Tutored by Kristine, I was taught how to mount parchment, whilst keeping specific considerations in mind such as the reactive nature of the material.


Marking the inlay aperture by drawing around the folio with a soft pencil.

To begin with, the folios were inlaid into a 100% acid-free, cotton card. Inlaying has several purposes; to create a false margin for handling and to help control the movement of the parchment. Parchment tends to bow and cockle due to fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity, which can be problematic during handling; the inlay also removes the need to overmount the folios with a window.

The inlay was produced by placing the folio on the card and then carefully drawing around it, approximately 3mm larger than the object. This space will allow for the parchment to expand and contract if need be. The outline was then carefully cut out using a scalpel.

Once the inlay card was prepared, paper tabs were made from Sekishu Japanese paper, which were cut to various thicknesses but of the same length (approximately 15mm) to accommodate the uneven nature of the folio. The tabs were adhered to the edges of the folios but distributed unevenly, to avoid creating any points of weakness along any specific side. The tabs were feathered and adhered with isinglass to the parchment.


Small tabs of Sekishu paper were adhered to the edges of the folio using isinglass, in preparation for inlaying.

Once the tabs were secure on the folio it was time to adhere them to the inlay card, which was achieved by applying wheat starch paste to the other ends of the tabs and applying them to the card. A mount was then created to house the folio in its inlay card. The card was adhered to the left-hand side to allow readers to easily access the verso of the folio.


The folio was inlaid into 100% cotton card by adhering the tabs with wheat starch paste.


The inlay card with the folio was hinged into a window-mount.

Other types of work undertaken on this collection have included the rehousing of a collection of small parchment scrolls and the conservation treatment of a large Sefer Torah scroll on traditional gevil, which is an animal skin processed in a specific way to result in a finished product somewhere between parchment and leather.


Left: A collection of scrolls were previously housed in an unsuitable box without adequate protection. Right: A new housing system was devised, which included layers of foam cut at different depths to accommodate each scroll and provide suitable storage and protection. Each scroll was wrapped in acid-free tissue and secured with cotton tape.

Learning about sewing techniques was another new skill I developed whilst working on this project. This allowed me to see dramatic change in Heb 773, which had many lose and detached skins. Using linen thread, I reinforced the joins between the skins, allowing the scroll to eventually sit comfortably when rolled.


Heb 773, Sefar Torah scroll on gevil (c.17th century), before and after conservation treatments.

Coming from a flat paper conservation background, this was a challenging object for me to work on due to the large size of the scroll, totalling 45 skins and a length of 2179.5cm (over 21 metres!) and the types of treatments required, such as sewing. However, I feel I have learnt a great deal from working on this object and many other scrolls, which has opened up a new interest and understanding of parchment and inks for me.

Having the chance to work on this collection has allowed me to consider the challenges of working with parchment whilst gradually allowing me to make decisions independently on the best choice of treatments for the objects at hand.

Puneeta Sharma, Heritage Council Intern in Paper Conservation

This will be Puneeta’s last post as she has reached the end of her year-long internship. We would like to wish Puneeta every success with her career in conservation!