Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Materiality

Workshops and documentaries

Workshops

First Materiality Workshop 

held at the National Archives Kew, UK, 13th and 14th December 2018

External guests: 
Elma Brenner, V&A Museum, Medieval and early modern manuscripts collections specialist
David Mills, Queen Mary University/ at Barts The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Expert in X-Ray Microtomography
Angela McShane, V&A Museum, Acting Head of Postgraduate Studies
Jennifer Richards, Newcastle University, Joseph Cowen Professor of English Literature Renaissance and Early Modern Studies; V&A/RCA History of Design and Material Culture
Paul Skinner, British Library, Lead Curator, Philatelic Collections

Workshop programme & List of participants

Materiality shooting of  TNA, HCA 30/236, 66/6A:
 
A sealed invoice

Sorting team: Account of Hertzer, 1744, folded by the court to form a wrapper, with a court note 'Letters ... 1741...44 Perused' attached by wax seals

Oldenburg team: This document represented an important piece of evidence during the court proceedings regarding the allegedly neutral ship “Hoffnung” owned by Hamburg merchant Nicolaus Gottlieb Luetkens. It represents an original sales invoice (“Verkaufs=Rechnung”) for goods found on board the captured ship, signed by the Hamburg merchant house of Hertzer & von Bobartt, in German language. During the court proceedings this piece of evidence was translated into English. The original sales invoice was stored and sealed with several seals by the High Court of Admiralty and transferred to the registry of the court.

Conservation team: The item is an enclosed envelope made from an account letter/invoice and red seals. The outer folio was originally wrapped around the letter and sealed into place by the court, this exhibits the most significant damage to the item.

BTMS (Before Treatment Materiality Shots)

ATMS (After Treatment Materiality Shots)

BTMS (Before Treatment Materiality Shots)

ATMS (After Treatment Materiality Shots)

ATMS showing the outer page after tears were repaired by conservation

The pictures show where the letter was cut around the seals to open up the letter

Left: Tools are used for showing the hidden text in the "pocket"

Below: Watch video of conservator Camilla  Camus-Doughan explainingthe document's features

Below: Watch video of conservator Camilla  Camus-Doughan cutting the seals to allow digitisation of the inner text.

Preparatory work and imaging of still sealed letters

In June 2019, during Sorting and In-Depth cataloguing of item TNA, HCA 32/111: Capture of Le Fort de Nantes or El Fuerte, including the re-housing of corresponding files from several HCA 30 boxes, Amanda Bevan and Randolph Cock from the TNA Prize Papers Sorting team found 319 still sealed letters originally representing Mail in Transit stored on the ship, original kept in mailbags.  

After careful consideration among the project partners in London and Oldenburg and in order to allow for more in-depth cataloguing, the Prize Papers Project has decided to open some of the letters. The majority of these letters, however, have not been opened and are therefore remaining in their original closed state till today. These letters have been imaged by the Prize Papers Project as still sealed letters. 

Right: Letter package, still sealed and tied up with a string, TNA, HCA 32/111E

The detailed catalogue of TNA, HCA 32/111E, which is the new reference number, with detailed information to all the letters can now be found here: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C17082377   On this page, for documentary purposes, we present some of the procedures following the decision to open closed letters.  This report is compiled by Lucas Haasis on the basis of the detailed reports by Maria Cardamone, Camilla Camus-Doughan, and Randolph Cock.   Before further action was taken, the Imaging Team received the letters in order to produce Before Treatment Materiality Shots (BTMS). Imaging also documented all further steps taken during the opening procedure. 

Left: Bundles of letters created by conservators.

Imaging team in cooperation with Oldenburg

When doing a BTMS, I am given all the letters with a pre-sorting reference number. Because these letters are still closed, these letters cannot receive their final reference-number by Prize Papers sorting yet. Letters from mailbags are usually tied up in bundles, which were not original, because originally these letters were stored loosely in the mail-bags. These bundles are created by Conservation Care depending on which conservation procedure will be required to open the different types of seals. Before starting the actual shooting, I always do a colour correction, using the colour checker. This ensures the right colour for our images. If the letters belong to a bundle, then I shoot all of them in a display which records the number order. I display them leaving equal gaps on their sides, and I shoot using a wide-angle lens in order to fit all of them in one shot (this would decrease the time for shooting). I capture front and back of letters as Panorama Shots. When showing the back of letters, the flipping of letters is done from left to right to avoid turning them upside down. In this way, the right position of the seal on the letter folding is preserved in our images. If a letter is identified as special due to some of its features, I take extra Materiality Shots of the single letter, eventually from all the interesting sides. The pictures below show one of the peculiar letter packages from this letter collection with an interesting letter locking technique. Three letters are bound together by string, representing an early modern Lock-N technique, which delineates the process when other materials than the letter paper itself are used for locking letters and letter packages (DoLL 2019). For capturing the side of this particular letter I created a holder by using black cardboard and glass weights. This system allows me to avoid having one side of the letter lying down on the base stand. Also, it allows me to keep the string around both sides of the letter visible. For the final effect, see the picture to the right. The trick used here is practical as I do not have to change the position of my camera on the camera stand or of the side lights; it also provides a nice blurred black background. When balancing the letter on the cardboard, it is better to wait a few seconds before shooting, allowing the letter become completely still.  Another special situation with closed letters is when the sorting team has recognised something special about them prior to the actual opening. In this case, the archivist Randolph Cock marks some letters providing them with paper notes, then encloses them in plastic sheets. In order to retain these such information for the sorting team, I capture these letters in single shots, and am careful when putting them back with the right slip of paper. For all other steps, imaging operator Maria Cardamone has created documentary materiality videos, documenting the cooperation of archivist Randolph Cock and conservator Camilla Camus-Doughan.

Conservation team

Upon request that the letters be opened by the sorting team to determine provenance - I first assess the letters to determine what physical obstacles would have to considered if one were to open them. Some of the letter wrappers seem to contain multiple letters, whilst others are intricately tied together. A consultation with Collection Care’s Head of Research and Head of Treatment Development, highlights the ethical and practical concerns of opening the letters and the potential destruction of material information were these letter to be opened. It is then decided that testing ought to be done to identify the least interventive treatment to unseal the letters. Testing with an Attenuated Total Reflectance Fourier Transformation Infrared spectrometer (ATR-FTIR) confirms that the wafers were mainly starch based. Thus it is deemed that an aqueous treatment could allow me to release the letter wrapper from the starch wafer seal. 

Randolph Cock and I create a suitable numbering system (e.g. U0, U1, U2, etc. for unsealed letter) to individually identify each letter when treated and photographed and avoid confusion with the final sorting number attributed to each letter by the sorting team. 

BTMS of the first group of U-numbered letters are taken. The first treatment option used a steam pencil to lift the paper from the wafer, however, this causes local distortion in the letter wrapper paper. Also option 1 would take considerable time especially if the treatment were to be repeated 200+ times. After obtaining Oldenburg’s approval to do further testing sessions, I go ahead and perform testing on a few letters with enzymatic agar gels using an alpha amylase enzyme to break down the starch molecules allowing me to lift the letter wrapper from the wafer. This testing allows me to perfect a treatment protocol to open the rest of the letters safely, preserving pleats and impressions, even in the area directly treated with the enzimatic gels. 

Materiality videos

Selective examples of conservational interventions are documented below in examplary materiality videos taken by Maria Cardamone

In the Prize Papers Project, we follow the guideline to not open letters and letter packages unless there are reasonable grounds. This is in accordance with ethical guidelines. These letter packages have survived in this closed state as artefacts for centuries. We should do our best to preserve this condition. We only open letters after careful consideration and after consultation with all project partners and not without documentation. Instead of opening letters in the future, we aim to use and develop further existing X-Ray scanning technologies and 3D modelling. 

Letter pre-named u41  

Description: Envelope containing two bills of lading    

Sorting: Randolph Cock finds to his surprise that the cover letter is missing. Until now his position was that a missing cover letter would be due to due to its removal by the court or someone else. As this is an unopened letter, it proves that it was also a common practice to send bills of lading even without including a cover letter.    

Conservation intervention: U41 was a shellac wafer seal with embossing. To facilitate its opening I cut around the wafer seal with a sharp scalpel. 

Letter pre-named u79

Description: Envelope enclosing two sealed letters Information: U79 is a tuck and fold letter which was sealed with a large brown coloured starch wafer seal with circular embossing.      

U79 went through pre-sorting conservation treatment. It needed to be opened to facilitate the sorting process and establish the letter’s provenance. Unless necessary to confirm provenance, the inner letters will be left closed, and all three will be given their final accession number by the sorting team. If not, the inner letters will be given U-numbers so they can be opened by conservation.     

Conservation intervention: 1) opened first envelope’s seal: u79 was opened using an α-amylase (1%) enzymatic agar gel (4%) 2) other seals to be opened: From the above video it appears that these letters (U79A and U79B) are sealed with a wax/shellac wafer. The intuition is to suggest cutting around the seals if necessary.     

Imaging operator: recorded the unfolding of the two letters on materiality video following the standard procedure developed in collaboration with Oldenburg