Monday, January 24, 2011

Lab Work - extracting manuscripts

Early on in my career I found that the days on a dig often ran together in my memory and I tended to lose track of the sequence of events.  After my first dig I started to keep a journal of the days, so I can refer back to events later without confusing myself.  In order to stay recognized in this field we’re required to publish papers and it could get embarrassing when you sit down to write up a project and find you can’t remember exactly what happened in what sequence.  People tend to doubt your expertise if your papers talk about translating documents before you’ve actually dug them up.  I’ve found that having a journal solves that problem.
So, where are we?  Well, it’s been almost a week since my trip out to the dig site.  Most of the time since then I’ve been I’ve been helping Henri set up the lab equipment we’ll use on the project and familiarizing myself with Marseille.  After opening the first few scrolls the Professeur decided to leave the rest until the new lab is running, so I’m still waiting impatiently for my first look at whatever else is in those amphora.
The lab here is small, but perfectly suited to our needs.  Controlled temperature and humidity and lots of tech toys to play with.  I’m saying we, but this physical process will actually be managed by an experienced museum curator / conservator, expert in this type of recovery.  The Professeur has called in some of the favors he’s collected over the years.  The University of Aix-Provence has provided these facilities at their Marseille campus.  Henri Metain, a friend of his from the Paris Museum has joined us and is doing all the document extraction and conservation.  As the language expert I was destined to wait on the sidelines for a while longer, but I’ve managed to convince Henri that not only does he need an assistant, but that I am the perfect choice.  So I get to play with some of the tech toys too!
Henri turned away from the window as I walked into the lab.  A tall man, middle aged with just a touch of grey in his hair.  I noticed his fingers were long, slender, almost a pianists.  He smiled in greeting. 
“Hey! Ready to start work?”  A nice mellow voice, with just a trace of a Scottish accent.
“Ready and raring!”  I smiled back.  “Lead on McDuff!”
He laughed. 
“I’ve decided that we’ll work through the amphora one by one.  Crack the seal, remove whatever it contains, which hopefully will be more scrolls, photograph and scan everything digitally and make multiple copies and backups.  That way if anything screws up we’ll still have something to show for our efforts.  Come,” he gestured towards the tables around the walls of the lab, “I’ll walk you through the process.” 
“We’ll be using a new technique I’ve developed for unrolling these particular scrolls.  It’s a series of specially formulated silicon baths, designed to remove the wax and then soak and soften the vellum without damaging either the scroll or the inks.  Do you remember ‘Dubbin’, that  greasy stuff you used to put on hiking boots to keep them soft and supple?  Well, we’re using a high-tech silicon equivalent.  It softens the vellum, but doesn’t cause it to stretch or sag.  It also ‘fixes’ the inks so nothing gets dissolved or washed away.”   
On the tables around the room were a series of 21 tanks, much like the chemical development trays I’d used when I worked in my photo darkroom, only each was about 10” deep.  Each was filled with liquid and scrolls were immersed in each tank.  Henri pointed to the nearest. 
“These are scrolls I just put in to soak.  As you progress around the room the tanks contain slightly different solutions, each one acting to remove wax and soften the vellum.  The first three tanks are mainly to remove the heavy wax coating on the outside of the scrolls, so we’ll have to change the solution every day on those.  The scrolls in the tanks down the end of the table have been through the entire process and now are mainly softening the vellum.  There shouldn’t be any wax left on those scrolls.  Each morning we’ll transfer the scrolls from one tank to the next.  The scrolls soak in the baths for a total of 21 days, one day per tank.  After that, we should be able to unroll the scroll reasonably easily.”
“Come over here.  Put some gloves on and let’s get you going.”  He passed me some latex gloves and positioned me in front of the last tray on the table.
“Take a scroll out of this tray and bring it over to this workstation.”  In the centre of the room was another table with two wide, shallow trays.  Myriad tools and small weights surrounded the trays.   Keeping the scroll submerged, I transferred it to a small carrying tray, lifted the tray and scroll out of the soaking tank and carried it carefully over to the workstation and placed it gently out into the shallow tray.
“Now, with your fingertips, or one of the spatulas here and using a very gentle pressure, coax the scroll open, then gently unroll it and let it lay flat.  Keep enough solution in the tray so the solution takes the weight of the pages, not the vellum itself.  That way there’s no pressure on the vellum, thus no cracking or damage.” 
As he talked I did as he directed, my fingers moving almost as if he were controlling them instead of me.  There was a rhythm in the motions, slow, deliberate and steady, calming, almost like a tai-chi meditation movement.
“Now, once you’ve got it open and flat, use the small weights to hold it open, good, now cut the bindings.  Very carefully, separate each of the individual pages of the book.  Transfer each page to one of these plates,” he handed me a wooden plate coated with a soft absorbent paper, “lay another on top to keep the page flat and set them in the drying chamber.  They’ll dry in there, takes a couple of days.  Once it’s dry, it’s fairly safe to handle.  The silicon softens the vellum enough to be flexible and provides a protective sealant coating.   Then we bring it over here to the scanner.”
He walked on to the next station around the room which housed a large format scanner connected to a PC.
“From here we take a series of very high definition digital scans, at 15,000 x 15,000 dot per inch resolution.  We do both sides of each page using a variety of light sources, from infrared to visible to ultraviolet.  Then the scrolls themselves are shipped off to a vault at the University of Aix-Provence for permanent storage.  This will be the only time you get to touch the actual scrolls.  From here on, all your work will be done from the digital scans.”
He sat back as I loaded the last page into the drying chamber.  “You did that very well.  Have you ever worked in a lab before?”
I laughed.  “Nope!  Well, except for my photography darkroom years ago.  This is the first time in a real lab.  I’m a language major.  Up till now I’ve almost always worked with photographs and copies, very rarely with originals.  This is great!”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”  He laughed, walked over to a fridge and pulled out a couple of soft drinks, handing me one.   “We’ll be at this for a while so pace yourself.  For now, let’s go grab some lunch.”  He glanced up at the clock on the wall and I followed his gaze.  It was noon.  We’d been working on that one scroll for over four hours.  I couldn’t believe the time had passed so quickly.
After lunch we each took a workstation and continued unrolling scrolls and separating pages.  My thoughts wandered as I worked.  So, this was the only time I’ll actually touch the scrolls.  Too bad. As I worked I let my fingers linger on each page.  Like that dinosaur bone of many years ago, somehow I could feel the weight of time permeating the scrolls.  Unlike the bone though, the scrolls also held an deep aura of mystery.  Hopefully once I started translating them the mystery would resolve itself, but that was for later.  Right now, if all of my future work was to be done from the digital images alone, I’d just have to treasure this part of the job.
The next stage would still be exciting though.  Even though I’ll be working with their digital images rather than the scrolls themselves, given some of the enhancement capabilities of the software I’ll be using, I’ll be able to read the vellum skin cell by cell if I want.  Personally I’ll probably stay at the normal reading level, but Henri claims that they’ll be able to tell the sequencing of the documents by simply comparing the fine detail of the vellum itself. 
When dealing with fragmented documents, which is a common occurrence when working with papyrus scrolls, the research teams would sometimes re-assemble a damaged scroll by ignoring the writing and simply aligning the fine detail of the papyrus used to make the scroll.  By a similar process you could identify which pieces of vellum came from a single animal skin.  Did I mention that people in this line of work can get pretty obsessive when it comes to attention to detail?

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