Symposium Report—Early Codices: Production, Destruction, and Modern Conservation

I intended to write some thoughts on this symposium earlier, but I’ve been busy finishing up the proofs and index for my book (more on that later). This was a wonderful event. The day began with a guided tour of the exhibition, The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity, which includes an interesting mix of artifacts from New York area museums, excellent models produced by the curator Georgios Boudalis and others, and some really nice digital animations illustrating binding techniques.

Multi-quire codex model

Model of a codex bookblock with sheets cut to reveal pattern of stitching inside the quire (from The Codex and Crafts in Late Antiquity)

Georgios gave a fascinating overview of the material, and Elizabeth Meyer was also present and offered insights on the varieties and functions of wooden tablets in the Roman world. The exhibition runs until July 8, so if you’re in the New York area and have an interest in early codices, I would definitely add this exhibit to your things-to-do list.

The afternoon consisted of a set of five papers. I was up first with a brief discussion of problems in establishing the dates for what seem to be our earliest codices and how how this might affect the ways that we think about the development and evolution of the technology of the codex vis-à-vis wooden tablets. The next paper was by Dirk Rohmann (Wuppertal), whose talk centered on Christian destruction of non-Christian books, drawing from his own recent work, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity. Among other arguments, he made the case that Christians in the west intentionally selected non-Christian works to be written over as palimpsests. It was interesting to hear Dirk’s reflections, given the broad dataset of Latin books from which gathered his evidence. As one of the audience members noted, it would be illuminating to see how evidence from the eastern empire compared.

Next up were a pair of papers by conservators at the Morgan Library. The first talk, by Frank Trujillo, focused on the important manuscript dedicated to Coptic bindings in the Morgan Library that was written up by Theodore C. Peterson in the middle of the twentieth century but was never published.  This manuscript (“Petersen 1948”) has an almost mythical status. You often see it cited by those lucky folks who have had the opportunity to consult it or get copies of pages (“…as Peterson’s wonderful illustrations of the binding of codex X make clear…,” etc.). So, I was thrilled to hear that Frank is undertaking a renewed effort to edit and publish this landmark work and make it more widely available.

Next, Maria Fredericks gave a fascinating history of the repair and conservation of the Hamuli codices, most of which are now at the Morgan Library. This forthright presentation highlighted the noble intentions of the early conservators to make the texts of the codices available as quickly as possible. At the same time, Maria noted that some of the conservation decisions and techniques from the early twentieth century have not aged well, to say the least. The choice to remove the leaves from their bindings and undo their well-preserved sewing now seems short-sighted, and the use of a gelatinous substance to stabilize damaged parchment has not been as helpful as expected. In spite of the best efforts of these early conservators (or perhaps, one might say, because of their best efforts) the deterioration of the codices after their purchase by Morgan continued.

As I listened to Maria’s highly informative talk, I couldn’t help thinking of an old newspaper article I came across in my own research. It appeared in 1911 shortly after the public announcement of the discovery of the codices, and it brims with the characteristic orientalist confidence of the time: “The [Hamuli] collection has just been received by Mr. Morgan from Paris, where its purchase from the antiquarians who rescued the sheaves of ancient manuscripts from the Arabs, was made. Prof. Henry Hyvernat of the Catholic University of America, who is one of the best known authorities on Coptic literature, …was instrumental in gathering from Arab vandals codex after codex of almost priceless vellum…” (New York Sun, 31 December 1911). The fate of the Hamuli codices after they left Egypt really does give the word “rescued” in the article an ironic punch.

Maria’s paper ended on a more positive note with a closer look at new investigations into another Coptic codex in the Morgan collection using CT scanners, recently described in the New York Times.  We were treated to some preliminary results from this research, which was fascinating and really exciting. I can see lots of potential for this kind of technology.

The final paper was by Georgios Boudalis. It was fantastic, and I’ll dedicate a separate post to it in the coming days. All in all, this was a great couple of days, and I feel very fortunate to have been involved.

This entry was posted in Codices, Hamuli Codices, Morgan Library. Bookmark the permalink.

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