Book binding cartonnage: a Rylands intermezzo

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

Caroline Checkley-Scott, Tim Higson and Jennifer Cromwell

This week Jennifer Cromwell has joined the John Rylands Research Institute and will stay with us as visiting research fellow for working on the Coptic papyri. Jenny has studied already this material a few years ago, with Malcolm Choat, another dear friend and regular visitor of the John Rylands Library.

We opened some of the boxes of the so-called ‘Coptic Limbo’, a meaningful label under which the Library has conveniently put fragments that never went through conservation, proper cataloguing and obviously publication. With the help of Jennifer and others, we are now working on improving the situation.

Yesterday we had a session with our conservators, Tim Higson and Caroline Checkley-Scott, in order to study some pieces more closely. Box 4 has made the joy of Caroline, an expert in book binding. Here is some of the material we found and discussed.

Book binding

Maybe this seems to you just a messy agglomerate of leather, parchment, mud, and textile, but it is not! These are the remains of a book covering that escaped from the destructive hands of dealers and past papyrologists that too often dismantled objects, i.e. archaeological evidence, like this, for recovering the only bits they were interested in: texts, either to be sold or read.

This conglomerate in fact reminded me a frame that collects parchments probably coming from a very similar context, which went destroyed for text-oriented researches:

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462 © The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 an 462
© The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462 © The John Rylands Library

Frame with P.Ryl. 459, 461 and 462
© The John Rylands Library

It is important to be aware that dealers habits and past conservation decisions dictated by purely text-oriented research have compromised important archaeological evidence that would have greatly improved our knowledge, for instance, of the history of the book. How did the ancients fabricate books? Did their technology change over time? Which materials did they employ? These are all key-research questions we can answer, at least in part, through the study of this messy-muddy remains (and this is only a sample among many we luckily have here…).

Nobody would operate nowadays as it was done in the past, except dealers and possibly people madly desperate to find the ‘ultimate’ version of the Bible or some other key-text for their own purposes. Unfortunately we know there are still people belonging to the two above-mentioned categories around. It is important to give them a stop!

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