Tag Archives: Mellon Sawyer Seminar

Workshop III: Palm Leaf and Birch Bark Manuscript Workshop with Jim Canary


Mellon Sawyer co-PIs and visiting lecturers: L to R Katherine Tachau, Justin McDaniel, Richard Salomon, Tim Barrett, Paul Dilley, Jim Canary

The Mellon Sawyer Seminar reconvened February 18th [2017]  to make palm leaf manuscripts and experiment with writing on birch bark, the substrate used in the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts. Most of the day was spent at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, making a palm leaf manuscript and learning how to produce writing on the slippery surface of the talipot palm. Jim Canary, Head Conservator at the Lilly Library, Indiana University [Bloomington, IN] led us through the process of making the palm leaf manuscript and scribing on the sheets of palm, which he sourced in his travels in Cambodia and Thailand. Fellow seminar presenters Justin McDaniel [U.Penn] and Richard Salomon [U.Washington] took part in the workshop, adding their observations about manuscript use throughout the day.

We began at the beginning – watching the following video demonstrating the harvest, processing and production of palm by laymen and Buddhist monks.

This video was produced by the Traditional Palm Leaf Manuscripts Preservation Project, Rangiri Technical Centre, Dambulla (2009) on the island nation of Sri Lanka. Dambulla is north east of the city Colombo, where a number of the palm leaf manuscripts in the U.Iowa Special Collections were purchased.

Jim Canary and Justin McDaniel examine palm leaf manuscripts

palm leaf wrapped in bundles
trimming the palm leaf to match the wooden covers of the book

 The palm leaves were first trimmed to width, using a template. Two lacing holes were also punched through the palm leaf using the same temple. This worked best for the daylong workshop, but in production in southeast Asia, the palm would be assembled between its wooden covers [for books using posts instead of string for the binding] then trimmed by running a a sharp blade against the covers, and finished by burning the edges with a hot metal rod [see video]. This provides a uniform shape to all the sheets and ensures that it will fit neatly between the wooden covers once it is scribed and ready to be re-bound.

Paul Dilley punching lacing holes into palm leaf, as Katherine Tachau looks on
etching / inscribing characters into the surface of the palm leaf with a metal stylus

Palm leaf manuscripts are not written upon, but etched into. The surface of the palm is too slick for ink to adhere well to. Instead, the scribe etches/scratches into the surface of the palm using a sharp metal or bamboo stylus. This scratches away the shiny, protective, top layer of the leaf, leaving lines of almost invisibly etched writing.  Ink is then rubbed into the etched line, and wiped away, miraculously leaving only the inked writing. We used calligraphy ink, but Justin McDaniel noted [from his time as a Buddhist monk] that the ink used in Thai Buddhist manuscript production comes from the ash of the funerary pyres. Hence, the writing in the books come from human bodies!

Participants spent several hours trimming and punching their palm leaf sheets, inscribing and inking their texts and decorations into the leaves.





historical palm leaf manuscript, showing ruled lines

Covers were then assembled. These had been pre-cut, holes drilled, and painted, ready for cord to be laced through.




The holes are punched through the palm leaf and sometimes cauterized with a hot poker [like the sides after trimming] and threaded with string or cord to keep leaves together. In some traditions, the whole is not punched, but still remains part of the page layout – with a dot and circle indicating where the hole would be. This is the case with some Tibetan manuscripts produced on paper [see photo below]. Does this reference some original exemplar [on palm leaf], and demonstrate the movement and copying of certain Buddhist texts across Asia?

Palm leaf manuscript [written in Pali?] showing lacing hole [left] with square space left around it and lacing hole [right] with cord attached
Tibetan manuscript with placement of lacing hole marked with a dot and circle, but not punched through

 Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia demonstrated the proper technique for wrapping up a palm leaf manuscript.

Palm leaf manuscript held up by Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Jim Canary and Kalzang Dorjee Bhutia

Jim Canary then demonstrated how to cut a reed pen and use a Tibetan ink pot.

Participants also learned about preparation of birch bark for writing. The earliest known Buddhist manuscripts from Gandhara [today N. Pakistan] were written on birch bark. Visiting scholar Richard Salomon had given a lecture on these manuscripts the previous day and all were eager to test out this material with newly cut reed pens and ink. Tim Barrett had sourced the birch bark from Michigan and UICB MFA student Johan Solberg painstakingly peeled layers of the bark away to create the proper thickness, flexibility and writing surface. The trick appeared to be to work carefully and slowly and avoid areas with knots from the tree trunk. Thank you Johan!


Jim and Richard discuss birch bark manuscripts

Reed pens and ink were tested on the birch bark, which has a fine fuzzy surface that quickly absorbs the ink.


Some Tibetan manuscripts from Jim Canary’s collection.

Jim Canary and Richard Salomon examine Tibetan manuscripts from Jim’s collection


Jim Canary’s analysis of pigments used in Tibetan manuscript production, from his Mellon Sawyer lecture.

End of the day – success!

The workshop was preceded the previous day by lectures from Richard Salomon, Justin McDaniel and Jim Canary [all Mellon Sawyer lectures are recorded and available on the website] and a visit to the UI Special Collections to examine their collection of Asian manuscripts.


UI Religious Studies professors Morten Schlutter and Kendra Strand look at palm leaf books at UI Special Collections.

Justin McDaniel examines materials in UI Special Collections.

Conservators convene at the UI Conservation Lab. L to R: Gary Frost, Giselle Simon, Jim Canary.

Melissa Moreton, Mellon Sawyer Postdoctoral Fellow

Workshop V: Early North African Bookbinding with Gary Frost and Julia Miller

The final Mellon Sawyer Workshop focused on the craft of north African bookbinding in the early Christian era. Book conservator Julia Miller began the workshop day with a presentation on the Coptic codices of Nag Hammadi, Egypt – followed by a workshop on Ethiopic madhar binding with Gary Frost.

Participants in the final Mellon Sawyer Workshop on Ethiopic and Coptic book structures.
Julia Miller’s models of the Nag Hammadi and other early Coptic codices.

The Nag Hammadi codices are extremely important in the history of the book, since they are the oldest surviving complete codices in the Christian tradition. Mostly single-quire codices [consisting of one gathering of papyrus sheets], they were produced in Egypt in the 4th century and contain gnostic Christian texts written in Sahidic Coptic, including gospels [the only complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas], prayers, and apocrypha.  We have fragmentary evidence of earlier codices, for example – evidence of multi-quire codices dating to the 2nd century, but these are the earliest examples of the codex that exist in the western tradition. Ten of the surviving eleven Nag Hammadi codices are housed at the Coptic Museum in Cairo [originally discovered at near Nag Hammadi, Egypt].

Julia Miller, Conservator Emerita at the University of Michigan Libraries, brought her models of the Nag Hammadi and other early Coptic codices and gave a presentation on these books, available here [slides with text, no audio].

Julia’s research on the Nag Hammadi codices was conducted at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, with book conservator Pam Spitzmueller [formerly of UI, and Harvard Libraries], and she is finishing up a book on the Nag Hammadi codices, Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings [forthcoming, Legacy Press].

Miller notes in an essay co-authored by Spitzmueller, “Cairo in August: Researching the Nag Hammadi Codices,” that the leather on the covers is in excellent condition [considering their age], largely because of the dry Egyptian desert climate which has prevented the dry rot that so often damages leather books in more humid climates [Bonefolder, Volume 4, Number 2, Spring 2008].

Miller noted that the skills involved in constructing and decorating the leather covers on early Coptic codices were skills already established in other craft traditions, such as shoe-making and trades that involved lacing, painting, tooling leather. She has mentioned seeing beautifully crafted leather work at the Coptic Museum, including a funerary shroud from Fayum, painted with parchment lacing and decorative cut outs resembling the tooling on early Coptic codex covers from Hamuli and Edfu. This discussion of the early craft antecedents of the codex is something that UI Conservator Emeritus Gary Frost has been discussing for years, and has recently been articulated by Georgios Boudalis, in his 2015 lecture ‘The Making of the Early Codex and the Crafts of Late Antiquity’ [see lecture video below]. This idea will be explored more in the symposium ‘Early Codices: Production, Destruction, and Modern Conservation’ at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC [Feb. 2018].

Miller’s model of early Coptic manuscript, SBB Or.oct.987.

Miller also discussed five other single-quire papyrus codices: Bodmer XIV [3rd c.], Crosby-Schoyen MS 193 [3/4th c.], the Tchacos codex [4th c.], SBB Or. oct.987 [4th c.], and P.Mich. Inv. 1289 [c. 6th c.]. She had made models of these structures, as well as some early multi-quire codices, which she shared with the Seminar group.

Miller’s Nag Hammadi models arrived in Iowa in advance of her visit, for the earlier Mellon Sawyer Workshop on April 1 [see Asian Palm Leaf Workshop post]. We were lucky to get her models a couple of weeks early to coincide with the lectures by AnneMarie Luijendijk and Brent Nongbri. Brent used Julia’s models to give a short presentation on early Coptic manuscript production. Brent is a scholar of early Christian texts, and discussed the production of these manuscripts, their discovery at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and some of the variations between the surviving bindings. We were very lucky to have these books here at Iowa in April and learned a lot about early Christian book production!

Brent Nongbri and Miller’s model of a Nag Hammadi codex.

The Ethiopic madhar book kit, by Gary Frost.
Ethiopic manuscript with leather cover tooled in the shape of a cross.

Miller’s presentation was followed by a workshop by Gary Frost on Ethiopic madhar bindings. Mellon Sawyer participants each made a small model of an Ethopic book and madhar carrying case, from previously assembled book kits. Elise Hochhalter, UI graduate student [Book Arts MFA / Library Science MA] and book conservation assistant, started the workshop out with a presentation on Ethiopic books, demonstrating examples from the model collection and the UI Special Collections, which housed four Ethiopic manuscripts in their original bindings.

Gary Frost teaching the Ethiopic binding in the Mellon Sawyer Workshop.
Diagram of the Ethiopic-style board attachment and link stitch. From Szirmai, fig. 4.1, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding [1999].
Participants calligrapher Cheryl Jacobsen and book conservation technician Bill Voss work on binding the Ethiopic model.

Participants sewed their books, using a link stitch sewing in paired stations. The link stitch has a long and fascinating history, and is believed to have first been used by Coptic Christians in Egypt, before it was brought to Ethiopia in the 4th century with the spread of Christian texts in north Africa. The Ethiopic board attachment [method of attaching the boards/covers to the textblock] uses channels drilled into the wooden covers, which the sewing thread passes through while sewing the first and last gatherings of the book. It is a sophisticated technical improvement over the Coptic bindings of the period, and protects the thread from wear and damage at the cover.

Mellon Sawyer co-PI Tim Barrett finishing up his little Ethiopic binding and madhar carrying case
Mellon Sawyer presenter Julia Miller and her completed Ethiopic binding and madhar carrying case.
Ethiopic manuscripts from the UI Special Collections – manuscript above right, 2-part leather madhar carrying case bottom.
Small Ethiopic talismanic scroll sealed into tooled leather carrying case, to be worn / held by the owner. UI Special Collections.

After the link stitch was sewn through the book’s wooden covers, end sheets were attached and the madhar case constructed. These protective carrying cases [above] are commonly associated with Ethiopic book production and allowed the manuscripts to be easily transported. The leather madhar cases are blind-tooled to match the covers of the books. Encasing texts in leather cases is not reserved for large manuscripts. This technique is also seen with small talismanic Ethiopic scrolls, which can be sewn closed into full leather cases which are ritually sealed and offer healing and spiritual protection to the wearer.

Leather case, holding talismanic scroll.
Religious Studies graduate student Peter Miller and his finished Ethiopic book model.
Library Science/ Book Arts graduate student John Fifield-Perez assembling his Ethiopic madhar carrying case.       
L to R: Mellon Sawyer presenters [Gary Frost, Julia Miller], co-PIs [Tim Barrett, Paul Dilley, Katherine Tachau] and postdoc [Melissa Moreton] holding Miller’s early Coptic binding models.
Frost and Mellon Sawyer co-PI Paul Dilley discuss the Ethiopic manuscripts from the UI Special Collections.

Mellon Sawyer participants had a chance to examine the Ethiopic manuscripts from UI Special Collections during the workshop. The collection includes at least 4 bindings generously donated by Fritz James, dating from the 19th to the 20th centuries. Though these are not early Ethiopic books, they are created in exactly the same way they were 600 years ago, scribed in black and red in Ge’ez, on parchment, with wooden covers [sometimes covered in tooled leather] and leather carrying cases. This continuation of early book production technologies is the most durable of all traditions in the western tradition. One outlier in the collection is an Ethiopic book bound not in leather, but in cloth, over wood and corrugated cardboard covers! One of the wood covers likely fell off and was replaced by more readily available cardboard. Folk repairs abound in the Ethiopic and Coptic binding traditions and one often sees that the books’ wooden covers have broken in half and are sewn together with thread to prevent them from detaching.

Melissa Moreton, Mellon Sawyer postdoctoral fellow

Cloth covered Ethiopic manuscript with protective foredge flap, from the Fritz James Collection, UI Special Collections.
The same manuscript, written in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of Ethiopian Orthodox Church – scribed in carbon black ink, with rubrics in red, and painting on facing folio.
Tim Barrett and Gary Frost discuss the bookbinding models.


Ethiopic manuscripts from UI Special Collections, and a model of a ceramic jar – similar to that which held the Nag Hammadi codices.