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Research using modern methods and technology

The technologies available to answer questions about the materials and construction of manuscripts range from simple forms of analysis, such as looking at a manuscript’s surface through a stereo-microscope under raking light, to more complex technical analysis such as multispectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence (XRF).

Simple magnification through a stereo-microscope can reveal the surface textures of the substrate and inks in close detail. It can help us look at features such as hair follicle patterns to establish whether a manuscript is written on the hair side or flesh side of a sheet of parchment.

Transmitted light (when a manuscript is placed over a light box) can tell us information about the fibre content of a paper manuscript; it can enhance laid lines and chain lines of handmade papers and reveal hidden details such as watermarks. Although watermarks cannot be relied on as a method of identifying the papermaker’s mill as papermaker’s moulds for handmade paper were often sold on, so watermarks should be treated with scepticism.

Looking at a manuscript in ultraviolet light can show areas that fluoresce, this can occur for different reasons such as metal particles in the water when the paper sheet was made, or show areas of mould damage among other reasons.

Species analysis through extraction of collagen from eraser gratings used in the conservation of parchment is a non-destructive method of analysis recently developed at the University of York’s BioArchaeology department. It can tell us what species of animal was used to make the parchment in manuscripts.

X-ray fluorescence can be used to help us analyse the constituents of inks and is often carried out in conjunction with multispectral imaging.

Multispectral imaging is a method of photographing the manuscript through different wavelengths of light to reveal any details that may not be visible to the naked eye. In the case of the Birmingham Qur’an manuscript, multispectral imaging was carried out to look for any evidence of an under-text to establish whether or not the manuscript was a palimpsest.

Important considerations when using these techniques are:

  • The impact on the manuscript – are the methods non-invasive or destructive?
  • Do they require exposing the manuscript to risks such as high levels of light exposure or removing a sample?
  • Are the risks justified in gaining the results to add to our understanding of the manuscript’s construction and past?
  • What questions are we trying to answer in undertaking the analysis?
  • Are we using the most appropriate form of analysis to answer our questions about a manuscript’s history?

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This article is from the free online course:

The Birmingham Qur'an: Its Journey from the Islamic Heartlands

University of Birmingham