Conserving an 1100-Year Old Codex: Part Two

Readers of our newsletter may remember a story that was published in December 2014 about a 10th century Greek Codex we had received from The Center for Adventist Research at Andrews University in Michigan. The Conservation Center was proud to be given the assignment of conserving this precious work. The codex—a rare book containing portions of the Gospels According to Luke and John—was crafted on pages of parchment, written in iron gall ink, containing decoration in gold leaf and bound in leather. Our paper and rare books conservators joined forces and poured many hours of hard work into assessing the damage and researching the appropriate treatment solutions. Additionally, a treatment plan was designed and implemented, to protect this rare volume from further damage in the future. 

The codex arrived at The Conservation Center with the trust of Andrews University. After the school’s research center suffered a pipe burst, water found its way into the display case containing the codex and other rare books, including a 1553 Tyndale version of the New Testament and a third edition King James Bible. Being 1100 years old, the codex had its fair share of wear and tear, but nothing as dire as the recent water damage. Upon analysis, our conservators discovered water stains, severe distortion, staining, loss of most of the lower corners due to rodent bites, and even a missing page.

Close study of the codex revealed its fragility and complexity. Each page required a process called passive humidification, which involves humidifying the sheet without directly introducing moisture to the paper. Many pages required multiple treatments to coerce the fibers into relaxing and flattening the pages for fills—a complex process due to the nature of the paper. Each sheet was of a different weight, texture, and tone, so The Center’s paper conservators had to match the fills with regarding these three attributes on every single page.

The areas of the fills were then toned to better emulate the color of the rest of the page. Once fills and treatments were completed as needed on each individual page, our paper conservators added hinges to prepare the sheets for binding by our rare books conservator. 

Completing the conservation process required rebinding the entirety of the codex. The 39 sheets had been unbound in order for the paper conservators to work on, but putting the whole book back together required a little more work. As the pages were crafted from parchment, especially parchment of this age, they required special care and attention. A challenge presented itself as the pages could not come into contact with any of the adhesives used on the cover and binding, because the moisture would compromise the treatment. Aside from exercising extreme caution during treatment, The Center’s rare book conservator created paper guards to stand between the pages and any viscous materials that could potentially damage them. To further protect the pages, extra end sheets were created to protect the parchment from the inherent acidity of the leather cover.

The binding of the codex was another challenge entirely. The binding, when it arrived at The Center, was not original to the piece, but was estimated to be from around the late 19th or early 20th centuries. To keep with original materials, or as close to the original as possible, our conservator created another goat skin binding to emulate the original. She then hand-sewed the codex using the hinges added by the paper department and hung it into the newly created binding. All treatments were made to be reversible, but also with technique to allow for changes in the future and for the book to be able to protected from inherent vices from the materials.

After a collaborative effort on the part of the paper and rare book departments, this codex is now fully conserved. The Center is thrilled to announce that the work has been safely transported home to the diligent care of Andrews University.

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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