Sunday, December 24, 2006

8th Century Psalter Found in Ireland

Martin Bailey:
An astonishing discovery in an Irish bog is posing an unusual conservation challenge. A chance find by a peat cutter last summer in County Tipperary, southern Ireland, turned out to be a psalter, which has been dated to around 800 AD. The discovery has been described as the Irish equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Faddan More Psalter is now safe in the National Museum of Ireland?s conservation laboratory. It is kept damp, at 100% relative humidity, in refrigerated storage (at four degrees centigrade). The room in which examination and recording takes place is cooled to 14 degrees, and the compacted vellum mass is only removed from the refrigerator for a maximum of two hours a day.

Sadly, much of the text has been lost. Some of the periphery of most of the pages has survived, but the centres of all the pages have rotted away. Where the vellum has survived, written portions vary from full legibility to complete loss. In some areas the ink has had a preservative effect, although the vellum around the letters has been lost. This has led to a series of inked letters piled on top of each other.

The first stage of the work, which has almost been completed, is a full investigation of the book in its excavated condition. This has involved an analysis of the binding and book structure, photography, magnetic resonance imaging, multi spectral imaging, analysis of vellum deterioration and an investigation of pollen samples.

Work is about to start on the second stage, which will involve the delicate separation of the pages and the process of drying out the vellum. Sadly, the vellum losses mean that only a fairly small part of the text of the Psalms remains, but it should be enough to enable scholars to see how the book has been written, decorated and bound.

The realisation that the Faddan More find was a psalter was made very quickly, after two words of the exposed Latin text were read as ?ualle lacrimarum?, or ?valley of tears? (Psalm 83). Trinity College Library keeper Bernard Meehan dates it to around 800AD, almost the same time as the Book of Kells. The psalter is in a large format (32 by 22 cm), almost as large as the latter, and was conceived on a lavish scale.

It has now been determined that the Faddan More Psalter comprises 104 (or possibly 108) pages. There are around ten words to a line, and 30 lines to the page. This means that the entire text of Psalms would fit neatly into the book, with perhaps a few pages left over for decorations.

The exposed front of the book offers a tantalising glimpse of a highly decorated page, including an interlaced border and the figure of a bird, possibly an eagle. Throughout the psalter, initial letters appear to be painted in red lead, now oxidised and badly discoloured.

The hope is that somewhere in the book it may be possible to identify the place where the psalter was compiled, the abbott who commissioned it or the name of the scribe. So far it remains speculation, but a possible owner was Birr monastery, which lay seven kilometres from Faddan More. Nearly 1,200 years ago, it is likely that the precious book was taken to the peat bog, possibly to hide it during a raid by Vikings from Norway.

National Museum of Ireland conservator Rolly Read and his team are now stabilising the compacted vellum mass. The difficult issue is how to separate the pages, preserving as much as possible of the ancient text.

The story began on 20 July, at Faddan More. Bulldozer driver Edward Fogarty was cutting peat when he spotted something unusual in his excavator bucket. After it was realised that the find was an ancient book, Kevin and Patrick Leonard, the bog?s owners, immediately called for archaeological assistance, and followed advice to keep the find damp and not expose it to air. The following morning National Museum of Ireland conservators safely moved the find to their laboratory at Collins Barracks, in Dublin.