Archive for the 'Announcements' Category

19th century treatments of palimpsests with chemicals

The British Library assigns its Syriac manuscripts to the “Asian and African Studies” department.  The people there are far easier to deal with than the people in Western Manuscripts.  They also run a blog which from time to time contains frankly wonderful material.

One such post was made back in September 2013, and I have written about it before.  It’s titled Some Syriac Manichean Treasures in the British Library, by Ursula Sims-Williams, and includes a picture of a page from BL Additional 12150:

Final page of Titus of Bostra, Against the Manichaeans. BL Add.12150, f.156r. Ms made in 411 AD!

Final page of Titus of Bostra, Against the Manichaeans. BL Add.12150, f.156r. Ms made in 411 AD!

What caught my eye today was a postscript by Christina Duffy, which must have been added subsequently.  It concerns palimpsests, those manuscripts where, in ancient times, the text was washed off the parchment, and a new text written on top.  Sometimes the lower text was dimly visible, even so.

In the 19th century, scholars discovered that the under text could be made very clear by painting the page with “reagents” – chemicals, usually acids of one sort or another.  This allowed the under-text to be transcribed, but also frequently damaged the manuscript.  However what was done precisely, and why it worked, has never been clear to me.

Christina Duffy’s statement is the clearest explanation of the subject that I have ever seen, and I’m going to give it here, word for word.

Sadly the result of chemicals used to make indecipherable script legible is seen in many of our manuscripts here at the BL. While the treatments initially enhanced the faded text greatly it was only a matter of time before the entire passage was left in a much worse state!

In 1969 Restaurator reprinted a report of the St Gallen Conference on the Conservation of Manuscripts from 1898 which listed gallic acid, thiocyanate, ammonium sulphide, sodium sulphide, potassium ferrocyanide and tannin solution as chemicals used to recover text. Essentially the reagents were attempting to balance the ink formulation. By “reagent” we mean a substance or compound used to bring about a chemical reaction.

There is mention of the use of chemical reinforcements as early as the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 19th century when chemistry was more understood that lots of reactions were tried out. For iron-gall ink, a good stable black ink is formed by a black iron-gall ink complex. If the ink production for whatever reason is imperfect, ink can become illegible overtime i.e. fade. Imperfect ink is generally missing one of the essential compounds in the ink ingredient list (such as iron sulphide or gallic acid) so it makes sense that applying these missing chemicals will allow the reaction to take place and the text to become clear again! Which is what they did, but alas the aftermath was less pleasing!

The oldest known recipe for text recovery uses gallic acid. One article suggests making an extract of gall-nuts in white wine and wetting the missing text with a sponge to recover the text. However it isn’t mentioned that the gall-nut extract goes brown itself after a few years and wherever the liquid was applied turns dark brown so nothing is legible!

Other treatments include hepar suplhuris, toning letters blue by reacting iron ions with potassium hexacyanoferrates or placing the text briefly in hydrochloric acid. Some manuscripts treated in this way are now covered in blue dye and completely illegible…which is why using imaging techniques is a much better idea!

There is a good article explaining all this including the chemical formulas by Robert Fuchs, “The history of chemical reinforcement of texts in manuscripts – What should we do now?” in Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 7 (2003): 159–170.

I wonder if multi-spectral imaging would give us something, even now?

Why should I ever buy another reference book? Give me a PDF!

Recently I needed to consult a translation of an ancient author.  I don’t own paper copies of very many translations, and I never knowingly buy books that I will not read and reread.  But unusually for me, I did own a copy of this volume in printed form.

However when I searched for it, it was nowhere to be found.  I had to make do with translating some French version of the original that I found online.

Where could it be?  After some searching, I discovered a faint memory of including it in a batch of academic books that I donated to someone, in order to free up some shelf-space.  I dispose of unwanted books all the time, as anyone with any sanity must; and in fairness this is only the second book whose loss I have subsequently regretted, so I shan’t change my habit.  All the same, it made me realise that I did need access to this particular volume.

Today I borrowed a library copy, and spent a couple of hours creating a PDF of the page images, with searchable text.  Abbyy Finereader 12 did its usual job of scanning the pages, and Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 created the PDF and made it searchable.

It’s expensive to borrow by interlibrary loan, mind you.  And I had to go into a library to collect them.  A recent foot injury made the walk from the car park, and then the wait in a queue for service, particularly uncomfortable.  Paper reference books are simply not what any of us need any more.

This sort of process – of conversion of books into PDF – must be repeated up and down the world. Students with no money, and academics with no shelf space, must convert the same reference volumes into PDFs again and again and again.  Surely there ought to be a mechanism whereby this could be avoided?  After all, nobody is at all likely to buy copies of this work personally, except by a fluke (as I did).

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 18c (part 1)

We move now to the second Caliph.  Heraclius is still Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire.  Yezdigerd has managed to become the Sassanid Persian king of kings, after much bloodletting, and enjoys a shadowy authority. 

As the Islamic hordes prepare to overrun the world, the nominally Christian ruling class of the Roman empire is engaged in political infighting.  But politics is illegal in the empire, which is a despotism; so all politics must take place under pretext of wispy and fantastical “theological differences”.  The words sound “religious”; but the conflict is carried on by the terminology of Greek philosophy, and the issues are in fact political.  The “religion” merely serves to embitter things. 

Such are the perils of banning political disagreement, making “right thinking” obligatory, while changing every minute precisely what “right thinking” consists of.  Who says that ancient history has no relevance to today?!

The Italian calls Omar “Umar”.  I think Omar is probably more familiar to English readers.


1. On the third day after the death of Abu Bakr, in the thirteenth year of the reign of Heraclius, King of Rum, Omar ibn al-Khattab b. Nufayl b. Abd al-Aziz b. Riyah b. Addi b. Ka’ab was made Caliph.  His mother was Khathimah, daughter of Hisham b. al-Mughira b. Abd Allah b. Omar b. Makhzūm.

2. At the beginning of his caliphate there was made patriarch of Alexandria George.  He held the office four years.  When he learned that the Muslims had defeated the Rum, had occupied Palestine and were moving towards Egypt, he embarked on a ship and fled from Alexandria to Constantinople.  After him the seat of Alexandria remained without a Melkite Patriarch for ninety-seven years.  After his flight, there was made patriarch of Alexandria Cyrus.  He was a Maronite, of the same religion as Heraclius.  There was, in Alexandria, a monk named Sophronius.  Sophronius refused to accept the doctrine of the patriarch Cyrus.  Cyrus, in fact, claimed that Christ, our Lord, had two natures with one will, one operation and one person.  And this was the doctrine of Maron.  Sophronius went to the Patriarch Cyrus, and had a  dispute with him on the subject.  Sophronius said:  “If that’s what you think, that Christ has only one will and one operation, then he must have [also] only one nature, not two.  But this is what the Jacobites assert.  But we say that in Christ there are two wills and two operations, as well as two natures, because it is impossible that one will can have those two natures.  But if he has only one will then he has just a single nature.  But just as he has two natures so he has two wills.”  Cyrus replied: “The patriarch of Rome, Theodore, and the patriarch of Constantinople Sergius share the same doctrine as myself”.  Sophronius then went to Constantinople.  Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, gave him audience, and Sophronius told him what had passed between him and Cyrus the patriarch of Alexandria.  Sergius, patriarch of Constantinople, was amazed.  Two days later Sergius received gifts from Cyrus.  Sergius then changed his mind and began to confute Sophronius, repeating the arguments of Cyrus, and affirming that Theodore (sic!), patriarch of Rome, considered his [1] point of view was wrong, and instead shared their doctrine stating: “The nature of Jesus is twofold.” Sophronius rejected this statement by saying: “No. Everything can be twofold, but not that which relates to the person”.  Then they said: “We will not say ‘two wills’, nor ‘one will’.”  So the doctrine of the church remained discordant for about forty six years.

3. Sophronius left Constantinople and went to Jerusalem. The monks and the inhabitants met with him.  Sophronius told his story, and made known his doctrine to them.  Jerusalem had no patriarch.  They then made Sophronius Patriarch of Jerusalem because of his Orthodox faith.  Sophronius then wrote a book about faith, which he sent all over and was well received by the people.  This was in the second year of the caliphate of Omar ibn al-Khattab.  In the fifth year of his caliphate, Macedonius was made patriarch of Antioch, in the city of Constantinople.  He was a Maronite.  He remained at Constantinople for six years and died.  He never set foot in Antioch or ever saw it.

  1. [1] Sophronius.

Proclus of Constantinople, “Encomium on St Nicholas of Myra”, now online in English

I have another piece for you of the ancient literature about St Nicholas of Myra.  This is an encomium which is found in the manuscripts among the sermons of Proclus, the 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople.  Although it has acquired his name, it is really anonymous.  Bryson Sewell completed a draft of the translation, and Andrew Eastbourne revised it and completed it.  Here it is:

As usual I make these public domain – use them for any purpose, personal, educational or commercial.

It’s translated from the Greek text published by G. Anrich.  Apparently there are quite a number of late encomia which merely retread the earlier material, and this is mostly one of them.  Still useful to have, tho!

UPDATE: Dr. E. has drawn my attention to an editorial error with note 14.  I’ve uploaded new versions of the files.

Paypal and “We’re sorry, but we can’t send your payment right now.”

Paypal is pretty much the only game in town for online payments.  But as with every monopoly, that causes poor customer service.

I needed to pay a translator yesterday, but I fumbled.  I entered the wrong password three times.  When I did manage to log in, I entered the details of my payment – to someone that I have paid many times before – and got the unhelpful message:

We’re sorry, but we can’t send your payment right now.

Which means nothing.  After several attempts, I contacted Paypal customer service via the link – and got back a form letter which told me nothing.  I responded to that … and never heard anything more.  Poor service indeed.

But 24 hours later, I tried again and … it worked!  Yay!

It seems that Paypal lock the account for certain transfers for 24 hours, after which you can try again.  But they don’t tell you this!  I suppose it helps reduce their losses from fraud.  But it’s bad luck for anyone who urgently needs to send money.  Effectively Paypal becomes unreliable.

I wish one of the big banks would roll out some competition for them; really I do.  It is much the best way to send money overseas.

A drawing of the Meta Sudans by Piranesi

A correspondent kindly drew my attention to this page on Wikimedia Commons, where there is a drawing published in 1756 by Piranesi, from Le antichità Romane vol. 1, pl. 36, of the Arch of Constantine, and the now destroyed fountain, the Meta Sudans.[1]  The scans were made in Japan from a 19th century reprint.

Here is a small version of the whole drawing, for context:


The Meta Sudans is at the right.  Here’s a zoomed in version of that part of the drawing:


The nearby figure of a man conveniently gives the scale, which indicates just how tall the monument was in the 18th century; three times the height of a man, and so about twice the size that it appears in 19th century photographs, after the top half was removed.  It also confirms the foliage growing on top of it, as is seen in some paintings.

This is a very useful bit of documentary evidence of the state of the fountain before it was truncated.

  1. [1] Le antichità Romane. Tomo I, tav. XXXVI // Opere di Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Francesco Piranesi e d’altri. Firmin Didot Freres, Paris, 1835-1839. Tomo 1. Scans from

The hairstyle of Julia Domna

Via Ticia Verveer on Twitter I came across this unusual item, today held in the Metropolitan Museum in New Year.  It is a gem, a beryl, an intaglio – i.e. an incised – portrait of Julia Domna, the wife of the emperor Septimius Severus.  According to the museum, it is 2.4 cms in height – just under an inch tall, and dates to 201-210 A.D.  Click on the image below for full size.

Beryl Intaglio with Portrait of the Empress Julia Domna. Met Museum.

Beryl Intaglio with Portrait of the Empress Julia Domna. Met Museum.

What interested me was that the hair looked almost real.  We have many portraits of the women of that family, with the elaborate hairstyles then in fashion, but they always look utterly artificial and unlike anything a woman would wear.

But the portrait above is not like that.  I can easily visualise a woman whose hair is braided like that.  It is not too different from what women do even today, although more elaborate.

Which makes this item, despite being a precious art work, invaluable as a way to bring the past to life.

My thanks to the museum for making such a wonderful portrait available online.

From my diary

A translation of another piece on Nicholas of Myra has arrived.  This is the Laudatio S. Nicholai, found in the manuscripts of the sermons of Proclus of Constantinople – early 5th century – but is clearly not by him.  Once I’ve paid for it, I will release it online.

From my diary

My apologies for the test posts.  Twitter insists on displaying an image with every notification of a post made here, and it’s always blank unless I include an image.  I’ve just been tweaking the theme to ensure that an image is always displayed.  It took 3 goes to get right!

The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 18b (part 2)

We now get the first significant chunk of Islamic history.

5. When Abu Bakr became caliph, there was the first riddah [war] among the Arabs, but he fought those who did not remain in Islam to the end.  Then he sent Khalid ibn al-Walid with a huge army into Iraq.  Khalid encamped in Mesopotamia.  The notables of the place came to meet them, he gave them a guarantee of security and they made a pact of peace with him by giving him seventy thousand dirhams: this was the first jizya in Iraq and the first money that was given to Abu Bakr from Iraq.  Next Abu Bakr sent letters to Yemen, to Ta’if, Mecca and to other Arab people asking aid to subjugate Rum.  They responded to his appeal, and Abu Bakr put in charge of the expedition Amr ibn al-As, Sarhabil ibn Hasana, Abu Ubayda ibn al-Garrah and Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan.  He entrusted to them the fighters and designated as supreme head Amr ibn al-As, ordering them to focus on Syria taking the road to Aylah.  He ordered them not to kill old people or children or women, not to cut down fruit trees, not to destroy the towns, not to burn the palms, not to cripple and kill sheep, cows and goats.  They made their way until they came to a village called Tādūn, in the territory of Ghazza, on the border with al-Hiğāz.  Having been informed that in the city of Ghazza the armies of Heraclius were concentrating, who was then in Damascus, Amr ibn al-As wrote to Abu Bakr asking for reinforcements, and making him aware of the plans of Heraclius.  Abu Bakr then wrote to Khalid ibn al-Walid to bring his men to Amr ibn al-As to support him.  So Khalid ibn al-Walid moved from Mesopotamia taking the way of the desert until he reached Amr ibn al-As.  Meanwhile the soldiers of Heraclius were well fortified in Ghazza.  Having come to Ghazza, the patrician who commanded the army of Heraclius turned to the Muslim soldiers and asked them to send him their commander, in order to know, through him, what they had to say.  Khalid then said to Amr ibn al-As: “You go”, and Amr went.  He opened the gate of Ghazza and entered.  When he came to the patrician, he greeted him and said: “Why have you come into our country, and what do you want?”  Amr ibn al-As replied: “Our king has ordered us to fight you.  But if you embrace our religion, if you feel it is as useful to you as it is to us, and harmful to your interests as it is to ours, if you are our brothers, then we will not allow wrong or revenge to be done to you.  If you refuse, you will pay the jizya: a jizya agreed between us, every year, forever, as long as we live, and you live: we will fight for you against anyone who dares to oppose you and lay claim on your territory, on your lives, on your assets, and on your children; we will take care of these things for you if you accept our protection by entering into an agreement for this purpose.  If you refuse then there will be between us only the judgment of the sword: we will fight to the death, and until we get what we want from you.”  On hearing the words of Amr ibn al-As and seeing the lack of hesitation that the subject gave him, the patrician said to his men: “I think he is the leader of the people.”  So he ordered them to kill Amr as soon as he came to the gate of the city.  There was with Amr a slave named Wardan, who knew Greek very well because he was Greek.  Wardan informed Amr of what he had heard: “Be very careful how to escape.”  The patrician then asked Amr ibn al-As: “Is there anyone like you, among your companions?”  Amr replied: “I’m the the least of all who speak, and less authoritative than any other.  I am merely a messenger, and repeat what was said to me by my colleagues, ten people more important than me, who are busy with soldiers and wanted to come with me, here with you.  But they sent me to hear what you have to tell us.  However, if you want me to make them come here, so you can listen to them, and to know that I told you the truth, I will.”  The patrician said to him: “Yes, let them come.”  In fact, he thought and said to himself: “I think it’s better to kill many than just one.”  So he sent word to those, to whom he had given the order to kill Amr, not to do it, and to let him out without any trouble, in the hope that he would bring his ten companions and kill them all together.  After he had come out of the gate, Amr ibn al-As informed his men of what had happened and said: “I never go back to someone like that,” and he finished talking, shouting, “Allahu Akbar!”  The Rum came out against the Arabs and engaged in a violent battle with them, but were put to flight.  The Muslims made a great slaughter of them, and then gave chase, driving them into Palestine and Jordan.  They took refuge in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and wherever they could.  The Muslims left them and went away from the parts of al-Bathaniyyah.  Then he wrote to Abu Bakr informing him of what had happened.  When the messenger came to him, he was already dead and had been succeeded by Umar ibn al-Khattab.  Abu Bakr himself, when he was sick, designated Umar ibn al-Khattab as his successor and ordered  Uthman ibn Affan to put this in writing.

6. Abu Bakr died on the penultimate day of the month of ğumāda al-akhar, in the thirteenth year of the Hegira.  The ritual prayers were held by Umar ibn al-Khattab.  He was buried in the same house in which Muhammad had been buried.  His caliphate lasted two years, three months and twenty-two days.  He died at the age of seventy-three.  Abu Bakr was tall, with a fair complexion which verged on pale, thin, with a thin, sparse beard, a gaunt face and sunken eyes.  He dyed his beard with hinna and cetamo, and his waist could barely bear the izar.  His minister was Abu Qahhafa as-Sandas and his hāgib was his freedman Sadid.