A short review of Samaritan binding practices

In this post I will look at some of the many questions raised during the conservation and re-binding of the large 14th century Samaritan Pentateuch I worked on as part of the recent project to conserve the Hebrew manuscript collection.

As I began work on this Pentateuch, it became apparent that the current scholarly understanding of Samaritan manuscript and binding production consists of just a few texts. This is probably due to the limited amount of Samaritan manuscript material that survives, and the lack of original binding evidence this material preserves. Even so, the existing literature gives the conservator a valuable starting point in understanding medieval Samaritan book production.

Heb 752 before conservation

CBL Heb 752 before conservation

When working on a manuscript the conservator attempts to understand its production characteristics, the circumstances of its production, and the binding of the manuscript in relation to a time and location. The presence or lack of a binding, as well as sewing evidence and other structural traces, inform our understanding of regional book production, and the object’s provenance.

Though European book production is well documented and Islamic book production is becoming better understood thanks to recent collaborations between conservators and scholars, Samaritan book production remains less researched. As mentioned, this is probably due to the small surviving corpus, the type of material, and the region in which these manuscripts were produced, all of which has led to a rather complicated history.

The Samaritans are a small community from around modern day Palestine and Syria. They are the descendants of Israelites who were not exiled by the Babylonians during the 6th century. Their scriptures consist only of the Pentateuch, i.e. the Five Books of Moses.

The Samaritans appear to have adopted the codex format in the 3rd of 4th century, allowing researchers to hypothesis that early Samaritan bindings had a strong link with the structure of other early bindings such as the Nag Hammadi bindings. The Samaritan codex is part of the Mediterranean binding tradition, and the remnants of later bindings that survive feature both Coptic and Byzantine elements. Nonetheless no Samaritan binding structures earlier than the 12th century have survived intact, so it is difficult to ascertain a binding style unique to the Samaritans.

The idea that the Samaritan scribe was also the binder seems to have been readily accepted amongst Samaritan codicologists. This means that there was no group of people whose craft was to bind books only[1]. It appears that the Samaritan people used bindings for the sole function of keeping their Holy word safe.


Left: Drawings of Byzantine sewn on board attachment by Konstantinos Houlis[2]; Right: Nag Hammadi book model by Cécilia Dumenico, CBL intern

The corpus of manuscripts from the 12th century onwards is more substantial, and allows for better interpretations. Alan D. Crown, an expert in Samaritan Studies, refers to the Pentateuch manuscripts from the 12th to the 14th century as being ‘not bound’. The Middle Eastern custom of wrapping[3] bindings was used by the Samaritans to protect the unbound codex in cloth. Extra protection from storing the manuscripts in wooden boxes appears to have also been common. This might have been an extension of the custom of wrapping books or might have developed independently.

In contradiction to Crown’s statement, it appears that the two large Pentateuch manuscripts (CBL Heb 751 and CBL Heb 752) in the Chester Beatty collection have been sewn with each quire attached to the next using a length of thread and a link-stitch at each sewing station. It would seem that they were sewn at a very early stage of production. Given the size of these manuscripts (280 folios, H: 32cm x W: 25cm), had the text block not been sewn, the manuscript would be extremely difficult to open and close without constant movement of the parchment bifolios and singletons, and risk of damage and loss. In the case of CBL Heb 752 the use of singletons hooked around quires throughout the manuscript can be seen.

What Crown likely means is that there is no evidence of protective bindings on the manuscripts i.e. no sewn on boards and no casing. The sections of the manuscripts were probably sewn together as a textblock before being protected by fabric wrapping and boxing. The spine was probably kept flat, i.e. square to the textblock. The common lack of protective boards explains the condition of the first and last quires of these manuscripts: the quires themselves acted as covers and were damaged as a result. Parchment repairs were often needed on these manuscripts, and over the years some of them were rebound to protect them from further damage.

Heb 751

CBL Heb 751 – First four quires before conservation

The Samaritans, like the Jewish people, safely disposed of their sacred texts in genizah; the Samaritan term is matmarah. These depositories of old sacred texts are fantastic sources of information. A number of discarded fragments from these matmarah have already found their way into international collections and been rebound, which has sadly resulted in the loss of valuable information on previous structures which could have helped the book conservator.

James Fraser[4] links a large number of fragmentary and composite 12th to 14th century Pentateuch manuscripts to the Damascus matmarah. He gathers that a certain amount of items from the repository were removed to be sold to Western collectors in 1628. The documents from the matmarah were probably sold both as individual fragments and as bound volumes. Some are in Islamic style bindings, whilst others have been re-bound as composite volumes in Western bindings by the buyers. As interest grew in the West for Samaritan material, from the later 16th century, the repositories were opened and items were either repaired, rebound locally by Muslim craftsmen or Samaritan scribes, and finally sold on to the West, sometimes to be rebound once again on entering these collections.Slide2

Left: Example of a Pentateuch bound in an Islamic style binding – Rylands Sam Ms.28; Right: Example of a 12th century Samaritan manuscript rebound in a Western style binding – Cambridge MS Add.1846.


The history of Samaritan bindings has never been firmly established, and appears to have been very flexible. The constant changes these manuscripts went through during their lifetimes makes studying their original bindings and looking for precious evidence very difficult. Nonetheless it is a fascinating story, which has allowed me to undertake the conservation of the Library’s beautiful 14th century Samaritan Pentateuch (CBL Heb 752) with a better understanding of Samaritan binding history.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator

[1] A. Crown, Samaritan Scribes and Manuscript, p.328-329

[2] Konstantinos Houlis (1993), “A Research on Structural Elements of Byzantine Bookbindings”, in Ancient and Medieval Book Materials and Techniques: Erice, 18-25 September 1992, edited by Marilena Maniaci and Paola F Munafò, vol. II, Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, pp. 239–268.

[3] A. Crown, Studies in Samaritan Scribal Practices and Manuscript History: V, p.451

[4] J. Fraser, 1971, ‘Documents from a Samaritan Genizah in Damascus’, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, p.85-92.



Conserving the past, whilst training for the future

The Conservation team were delighted to start the New Year by offering a student placement (4th– 22nd January 2016) to Laura O’Farrell. Laura is originally from Dublin, and currently a student at West Dean College, University of Sussex. She has spent the past three weeks with us as part of her post-graduate diploma work placement, and we’re happy to share this post from her.

CBL Archive:

The Sacred Traditions gallery (c) The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

When at university in Dublin, between too many cups of coffee and too few hours spent in the library, a number of us would bail out on actual work and come up the road to the Chester Beatty Library instead. One of our first year courses was an Introduction to Early Christianity which explored many of the textual sources of the New Testament, but no amount of reading through any textbook compared with standing in front of the cases in the Sacred Traditions gallery and looking at the papyri there.

That fragments of anything so delicate could survive that long seemed magical to me. Even now, despite understanding more about cellulose and how it deteriorates, it still does. I’m not even sure I knew much about what conservation was then, but it seized my imagination, and in the years that followed, when I thought about potential careers, it was the thing I returned to again and again.

Nonetheless, it did take me thirteen years to get back to the Chester Beatty Library, (although some of those years were spent in Glasnevin Cemetery, where Chester Beatty himself is now one of the beloved permanent residents). I am currently studying for an MA in the Conservation of Books & Library Materials at West Dean College, in the UK. As part of our studies, all students are required to undertake a work placement. Jessica and the conservation department at the Chester Beatty Library very kindly offered to have me for three weeks, and so, unlike my peers who had to scatter across the UK or further afield, I got to stay at home, immensely privileged to be working with the very precious objects that lived right where I did.

Most of my time here has been spent working on two objects from the Hebrew manuscript collection which are part of an ongoing project to conserve the entire collection.


Heb 779, before and after conservation.

The first was a single folio fragment that was in a rather poor condition and in definite need of some tlc. The paper itself was extremely fragile, with a number of tears and losses, and a significant amount of surface dirt and discoloration. The manuscript appears to have been written in iron gall ink, an ink which, when fresh, can be an intense blue-black in colour but as it ages, turns to a brown and can be notoriously corrosive.

The first step was to support each of the tears and weaknesses with some very thin Japanese tissue, adhering it to the repair site with wheat starch paste. It was important to limit the amount of moisture used, so as not to risk the appearance of tidelines on the object or any general darkening or colour change on the areas of repair, and also to avoid accelerating the corrosion of this ink. Larger losses were then in-filled with a heavier Japanese tissue in a sympathetic colour to provide additional support. After the repairs had been trimmed, the object was then inlaid into some beautiful handmade paper from Griffin Mill, and a mount cut for it. The inlay provides extra support for the object when it’s handled, and the mount means it can be exhibited easily when required.

Although I had done repairs such as this before, the process of inlaying and mounting was completely new to me but I was patiently guided by Kristine at each step, and am now hopeful that this object should have a longer and happier life ahead of it.


Tear repair and infills on Heb 776.

The other object I had the opportunity of working on was a 19th century parchment Torah scroll. Because of the way it is manufactured and dried under tension, parchment can become quite hard and unwieldy as it ages. Working with parchment account scrolls has been described by some conservators as akin to ‘wrestling an octopus’ and can require a rather fantastical construction of weights to keep everything in the correct position. Thankfully, this scroll had none of those problems. The parchment was of a very good quality and in very good condition, and might not have required any treatment but for some sort of rodent having feasted on its edges at some point in its life.

Heb 776 (9)

The Torah scroll after conservation.

The tears and losses were in danger of creating more damage and so had to be stabilized. The repairs were done in the same manner as for the first object, with two weights of Japanese paper, but this time adhering them with isinglass. Isinglass is obtained from dried sturgeon swim bladders, and is particularly suited for repairing parchment as both materials are collagen-based. As isinglass can be used at a low temperature, it also helps when keeping additional moisture and heat to a minimum is essential. The paper chosen was a nice match in colour to the parchment, allowing the repairs to obtrude as little as possible on the appearance of the object.

Working on this scroll was a really nice introduction to treating parchment objects, as well as to the structure of the scroll, which is obviously very different to that of the codex but fascinating to look at and use.

Icon wall Installation 18 Jan 2016 (25)

Cécilia, Laura, and Julia with the new icon display in the Sacred Traditions Gallery.

During my time here I’ve also had the opportunity to see some of the many ways the Conservation department is involved in different aspects of the Library. I was able to assist in the installation of icons in the Sacred Traditions gallery, and had an up close and personal view of some extraordinary objects as they came through the studio.

As my placement here comes to an end, I will be both loath to leave and re-enter the real world, but also hugely appreciative of the opportunity I’ve been given. Everyone here has been so kind, encouraging and supportive and, despite the intervening years, this place has remained as magical to me as it always was.

Board reattachment for a 12th century Syriac manuscript

In preparation for the rotation of the CBL’s permanent collections, I have been working on a large 12th century Syriac manuscript. This beautiful manuscript will shortly go on display in our Sacred Traditions gallery.

This large parchment volume was produced in the Monastery of Tella, near modern-day Aleppo, Syria. It is a copy of the Harklean Gospels written in Syriac. The text is a 7th century translation of the New Testament by Thomas of Harqel. The Syriac language and alphabet developed from Aramaic and has been used by the Syriac Orthodox Church for liturgical purposes from the 1st century AD to the present day.

Syc 703 Front board.JPG

The upper board of CBL Syc 703

It is most likely that the manuscript’s large, heavy binding is contemporary to the textblock it houses but the structure has been repaired and the spine rebacked with new leather. It is likely that these repairs were carried out in the early 20th century, when such a treatment was a very common practice.

The textile spine lining and endband tie-downs are no longer attached to the textblock due to the previous repairs. This has weakened the binding and placed extreme pressure on the sewing thread which forms the board attachment; resulting in the breakage of the thread joining the textblock to the front board, leaving a very loose board attachment and a number of loose quires. The absence of a functioning spine lining and endband tie-downs has left the text-block with very poor opening characteristics, and a weak and uneven spine profile, making it extremely vulnerable to further damage whenever handled.

Syc 703 weak attachment to the board

The extremely weak upper board attachment, and fragile textblock

In order to allow the manuscript to be opened safely for display, it was clear that repair would be necessary. However, it was preferable that any treatment be minimally interventive to avoid further disruption to the historic binding.

Fortunately, the exposed spine granted easy access to the original sewing. I used an unbleached Blake linen thread and a curved needle to repair the damaged, unsupported link stitch sewing between the first three quires following the existing sewing pattern. Continuing the link stitch sewing allowed me to strengthen the board attachment by wrapping new thread around the weakened existing attachments.


Original threads and new sewing repairs side-by-side.

As the last folio of the first quire was fully detached and its conjoint folio was missing, I re-inserted it using Japanese paper tabs. The tabs were adhered to the spine edge of the loose folio and slipped between the historic sewing stations. The tabs acted as a comb guard and were further secured by the new sewing which has reinforced the existing broken threads as it passes through the centre of the gathering.


Attaching the detached folio with Japanese paper tabs.

These small structural repairs to the sewing and board attachment have greatly improved the opening characteristics of this manuscript. It now opens comfortably on a book cushion, and can be handled by scholars without risk of further damage, or loss of the previously vulnerable detached folio.

When the manuscript goes on exhibition in the Sacred Traditions gallery it will be mounted in a bespoke Perspex cradle which will fit the spine profile exactly and give the manuscript the best possible support whilst it is open on display.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator

The Chester Beatty Library Conservation team would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year!

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!

Introduction to the Hebrew Conservation Project


Book and Paper Conservator Julia Poirier conserving CBL Heb 752; a sefer Torah scroll; a Mezuza.

Thanks to a generous grant from an anonymous donor, the Chester Beatty conservators are working on a one-year project to conserve the thirty-two manuscripts in the Hebrew Collection. These include Judaean and Samaritan manuscripts, dating from the twelfth to the twentieth century. They are of special significance, not only because they are culturally and historically important, but also because they are unique to the Chester Beatty collections.


Senior Conservator Kristine Rose Beers handling Heb 761.

The programme of conservation will ensure that these manuscripts can be handled safely and made accessible for teaching purposes, for scholarship and research, and for the enjoyment of the general public. In conjunction with their conservation, the Library is redesigning a section of its permanent Sacred Traditions gallery to accommodate an enhanced display of the manuscripts.

The conservation team consisting of Kristine Rose Beers (Senior Book Conservator), Julia Poirier (Book conservator) and Puneeta Sharma (Conservation Intern), have been hard at work and will be posting a series of blogs explaining their work.