ARCHiOx, part 1: Finding stories in the margins

An essay by John Barrett, Senior Photographer, Bodleian Libraries, about discoveries from the ARCHiOx imaging project, which has been funded by the generous support of the Helen Hamlyn Trust. See also:  ARCHiOx: research and development in imaging – The Conveyor


A 9th century insular manuscript, Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in evangelia. MS. Laud Misc. 429.

The above manuscript, Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in evangelia, is written in Latin and dates to the first half of the 9th century.  The 15th century shelfmark on folio 2, reveals that this volume was in the possession of the cathedral church of St. Kilian in Würzburg.  Examples of annotations made not in ink, but through scratching the surface of the parchment using a drypoint stylus have now been discovered and recorded on twenty-five pages from this volume, using the Selene.  The catalogue description for the recto of folio 74 shown in the image above, describes a drawing in the lower margin. A hunting scene, barely visible from the conventional photographic recording, but clear enough to make a partial digital annotation.  Far more successful at revealing the inscription, the 3D render shows not only the illustration, but also four camouflaged letters, R, O, D, A. This demonstrates how 3D recording can compliment traditional imaging in revealing and documenting new discoveries.

A shaded render of a drypoint addition from the lower margin of folio 74r.
A compiled digital annotation using conventional and 3D recordings, showing the position and form of the addition. MS. Laud Misc. 429.

The drypoint annotations recorded on folio 60r, in the image below, are inconsistent with the majority of others from this manuscript.  These have been added between passages of text rather than confined to the margins.  In this example, relatively deep incisions have been made, marking the position of punctuation. Far less obvious and perhaps only recognisable from the 3D render is a small, marginal illustration showing two hands, tied together with a bow.

A digital annotation from folio 60r, showing numerous drypoint additions. MS. Laud Misc. 429.

In order to determine whether or how this annotation might relate to the text, the image above was shared with Jo Story, Professor of Early Medieval History, Leicester University.  Her interpretation reveals a clear link between annotation and text.   The text from this homily describes the stoning of Stephen. The translation of folio 60r begins ‘when Stephen was dying for his faith, Saul kept the clothes of the stoners. Therefore, he himself stoned them all with his own hands, who returned all the works to the stoners.’  The connection between inscription and text is most evident from the passage at the end of the fourth line ‘Duo ergo sunt que’ – ‘because many are called but few are chosen’ – Chapter 22:14 from the Gospel of Matthew.  This passage immediately follows the verse ‘Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Dozens of similar recordings of unlinked manuscript annotations have now been captured using ARCHiOx technology.  The discovery of the name ‘Eadburg’ from another of the Bodleian’s early medieval manuscripts by PhD candidate Jessica Hodgkinson (University of Leicester) is described in a previous Conveyor post.  Recordings from these two manuscripts have demonstrated that photometric stereo recording is extremely effective and is likely to hold the key to documenting incised markings from similar volumes.  Revealing these markings which have remained undetected for centuries is an incredibly exciting application of this new technology.

“The new photometric stereo recording methods that are being pioneered by John and the ARCHiOX team are transformative. The method allows us to see the surface of the pages in much greater detail than ever before and will give us insights into the preparation of the membrane and the methods used to make the quires, as well as acts of reading and engagement with the book after it was completed. New, and almost invisible, marks are now easily seen – revealing huge amounts of new information about medieval book culture – and the people who made and read them. This changes what we can do, the questions we can ask, and the answers that are revealed.” Jo Story, Professor of Early Medieval History, Leicester University.

Download the full essay by John Barrett, Senior Photographer and ARCHiOx Technical Lead (Bodleian Libraries)

Logo of the Helen Hamlyn Trust