Susanna’s Secret – A 12th Century German Palimpsest?

As a follow-up to our large book SEM study, Deborah Meert-Williston from the Archives & Special Collections at Weldon Library (UWO), brought SSW a very special item to image and analyze, a 12th century ‘Susanna and the Elders‘ medieval manuscript. This manuscript is the oldest item that UWO has in their rare book collection, dating from around 1125 in Germany.

The optical photographs above and below, show the medieval inking on the manuscript. If you look closely you can see that faint text runs 90-degrees to the main darker text. This manuscript may have been a rare case of a “palimpsest”, which was an early form of document recycling, and would be a very interesting discovery if true. SSW researchers wanted to characterize this faint 90-degree text in higher detail.

Optical imaging (shown below on the left) revealed a few notable characteristics. The faint 90-degree text contained letters that were in serif font. The imaging also revealed that each instance of the same character were exactly the same as each other (see the two ‘e’ characters below). The imaging also showed that large runs of characters were in a mirrored orientation.

SEM imaging (shown below on the right) revealed that the letters contained no discernible elemental variation, which was perplexing since inks of antiquity used heavy elements (Fe, Pb, Au, etc.). In fact, SEM imaging showed fibers and carbonaceous materials where the 90-degree text was.

FTIR analyses found that these overlying fibers and carbonaceous materials were cellulose and glue. Manuscripts of this antiquity were typically made of vellum (animal skin), and the discovery of cellulose did not occur until the mid-1800s.

The scientific characterization of this manuscript helped to identify the relative age of the lettering and details of it’s composition. Special Collections now believes that this manuscript piece is a fragment of a larger sheet of parchment that was cut down and used as binding in another book. As the binding glues pulled on the cellulose pages, the faint 90-degree letters transferred from the book over top of the medieval script. 

So, this was not actually a case of a palimpsest, however this manuscript has gone through some very unique and interesting history of its own! SSW handles many rare and unique samples, and if you have one that you would like to investigate please contact us!

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