The Conservation of a 5th century Buddhist
The Conservation of a 5th century Buddhist
February 21, 2000
(click on small images to go to full page images with captions)
"Then, in the midst of the gods of the heaven of the thirty-three, a son of a god was dwelling in the Sudharma, the palace of the gods. In a huge heavenly mansion, surrounded by great divine opulence and great groups of divine young women, he played with them and made love. After he had enjoyed this divine opulence, during the night, he heard a voice:So begins the translation of one of the 5th century Buddhist sutras found within a recently discovered early manuscript.
"The son of a god will die on the seventh day. When he has died, he will be reborn again in the Indian continent, and there too he will expense seven states of rebirth. After experiencing seven states of rebirth, he will be reborn in Hell.
If even once in a hundred times he is reborn as a man, he will be poor and blind -- by him this was heard."
The owner's hope was that the manuscript leaves could be opened and separated, in order to be translated. He explained to me that this manuscript was extremely rare, and that the owner hoped to discover any missing links to the history of early Buddhism.
Ethical ConsiderationsBut before agreeing to take this project on, I had several philosophical and ethical questions. I am familiar with many types of Asian books and manuscripts; and have considerable experience examining and treating early Buddhist sutras on paper & Indian palm-leaf manuscripts. (Fig. 2) These Indian and Himalayan manuscript types provoke inquiry and ethical considerations, especially issues regarding the treatment of sacred objects. As with most ethical questions, there are a wide variety of answers, depending on the opinions of religious and museum specialists.
Indian palm-leaf manuscripts present fewer ethical problems for the conservator, as they are often collected individually for their illustrated images, and many beautiful examples exist in museums, libraries, and private collections. Palm leaf manuscripts were probably in use as early as the 2nd century, but no extant leaves survive earlier than the 10th century. Because palm-leaf is still used today in India for certain religious writings, much is known about the manufacture and treatment of the material.
Before commencing a literature survey, I consulted several colleagues who had great experience with manuscripts, early non-paper collections, and Indian art in general. Colleagues familiar with papyrus were particularly helpful, and other colleagues tried to convince me that the manuscript must be on palm-leaf, which was my initial error as well. A particularly helpful consultation was with Nancy Turner, Manuscript Conservator at the J Paul Getty Museum. I brought my slides and my fragments up to her lab, and we examined them under the microscope, and they were, in fact, bark. We could clearly see the laminated layers of very thin barks and examine the inks and written inscriptions very clearly.
The literature survey was sparse but useful, with a great deal of historical data, but little information on conservation treatment.
History of birch bark as a material for writing
(Fig. 4) The research in Butterworth's Conservation of Manuscripts and Paintings of South-East Asia, revealed that birch-bark (called bhoja-patra) was a primary writing material along with palm-leaf in India before paper. Birch bark was mentioned as a writing material by the Greek historian Q. Curtius, noting its wide use during Alexander's invasion by Hindus. Early extant manuscripts date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, written in the Kharoshti script. Fragments survive from a range of time periods, and the material is described throughout Indian literature. Bhoja-Patra's use diminished in the Mughal period when paper replaced it as a writing material, but it still has a sacred status in India today.
The manuscript brought to my studio, now called the "Los Angeles manuscript" was found in the Bamiyan cave region of modern Afghanistan. In ancient times, this area was part of Gandhara, the region invaded by Alexander the Great in 326 BCE. Gandhara became a second Holy Land of Buddhism, and most extant sculpture from the region took the form of Buddhist cult objects, Buddhas and Boddhisattvas, (Fig. 5) like this Boddhisattva sculpture from the 3rd century in the Norton Simon Museum, or architectural ornament of Buddhist monasteries. Because of the strong influence of the Greeks and Romans, Gandaran sculpture reveals many Western classical elements, including the treatment of the robe and its heavy folds, and the physiognomy of the central figure. Interaction through caravan trade routes and the Silk Route in particular maintained these stylistic exchanges.
One of the greatest sites in Gandhara is Bamiyan, a mountain valley in north-central Afghanistan. (Fig. 6) A high cliff forms one side of the valley and is honeycombed with monastic dwellings, bounded on either side by colossal Buddhas in niches cut out of the rock. The largest, depicted here, is 174 feet high, and in the Gandharan style. (Fig. 7) The region is full of monasteries, stupas, and caves, some with rich interior depositories of paintings, murals, and manuscripts.
The literature states that the inner bark of the birch tree was used for writing. (Fig. 8) After being peeled off the tree, the bark was dried. Oil was then applied over it and it was polished. Layers were joined together by a natural gum. Finally it was cut to a suitable size and kept in between wooden covers. The ink used for writing on birch bark was "Indian black, a carbon ink. It was prepared by burning almond shells to charcoal, which was then boiled with cow's urine. This ink is said to have a special brilliance and is fast to washing." Tests have shown birch bark sheets to be typically 0.2 - 0.5 mm thick, and contain a cellulose content of 38%. Additionally, birch bark is highly soluble in organic solvents, but not soluble in cold water.
Once we had the manuscript in the studio, we began detailed written and photographic documentation prior to treatment. (Fig. 10) I had decided to use humidity to attempt to open, separate, and flatten the leaves. But before I describe the steps employed, I would like to read the only historical account I could find in the literature for separation.
"In the 1930's, the Musee Guimet in Paris had acquired bundles of birch bark found at Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Any attempt to open the sheets was resulting in the breaking of the sheets into small bits. Water vapor had no effect on separating them. Finally, hot paraffin oil was used to soften and separate the stuck sheets. The reason for choosing paraffin was its clarity and preservative quality. The fragments were immersed in cold oil which was then heated on a slow fire for some time until a light smoke started coming from the oil. In this condition it was possible to detach the leaves from one another with the help of a pair of tweezers. The mud split up easily and each piece was cleaned, drained and laid on a sheet of glass. Each fragment, along with the oil, was sealed in glass. The edges of the glass sheets were sealed with paraffin wax."They go on to point out the primary disadvantage of this treatment is their weight and bulky storage requirements, but clearly there are other disadvantages!
Since the inks were stable, and the bark impervious to water staining, I began humidifying the manuscript using an ultrasonic humidification chamber made from a photo tray and plastic sheeting and maintaining 80% relative humidity (RH). (Fig. 11) While watching carefully for excess precipitation, the manuscript underwent humidification in this fashion for several days. To my great satisfaction, the leaves began to relax, but were not wet. I continued to humidify the manuscript in this fashion for another 72 or more hours, which allowed me to begin carefully manipulating the "block".
Once the first group of 6 outer leaves were removed, they were placed on a damp blotter and Gore-Tex layer, and gently held in place until the top of the "blotter sandwich" could be placed on top. Needless to say, this first group's successful separation was extremely exciting around the studio, and I called the owner with the initial good news.
We continued the treatment, and subsequent leaves also separated in this fashion, followed by further humidification once flat, followed by flattening between dry cotton waterleaf blotters. In the end, the leaves opened up to approximately 2 inches high by 14 inches wide, from the original 2 x 3 inch folded object.
losing the order or flipping the leaves, since I don't read Kharoshti or Sanskrit, that we were extremely careful about collation.
SuccessIn the end, the treatment was a great success. (Fig. 15) All of the leaves separated, and remained flat in their encapsulated packages. There were fragments and areas of birch-bark leaf loss, just like any ancient material like papyrus, but all the scraps and fragments were saved and encapsulated in the precise order of the original folded object.
After the final meeting with the very pleased owner, and the work was released from the studio, the manuscript was taken away for translation. After being photographed, transparencies were sent to Richard Salomon, the author of Ancient Buddhist Scrolls from Gandhara, a publication of the British Library. This book came out in June 1999, six months after my research and treatment. In the book, Mr. Saloman states:
"As the Dead Sea Scrolls have changed our understanding of Judaism and early Christianity, so a set of 29 scroll fragments acquired in 1994 by the British Library promise to improve our knowledge of the history of Buddhism".This surprising discovery in 1994 revealed over two dozen texts which had not been identified with previously known texts in other Buddhist languages and traditions.
After Mr. Saloman's initial consultation, it was sent to Dr. Gregory Schopen at UCLA, who translated the manuscript. This was the result: the 40-odd leaves or fragments were two complete books, or texts, and the technical name for the script is "upright Calligraphic Gupta". The larger text was a previously known Buddhist sutra and the equivalent of 37-40 leaves. The transliteration and translation were sent to me along with the information that the "smaller of the two books, which Dr. Schopen has dubbed the "Los Angeles Manuscript", consists of a seven page incantation apparently unknown in contemporary manuscripts and thus of significantly more interest to scholars." This manuscript is now in the process of being published by Dr. Schopen, and is every bit the "missing link" to history as the owner had hoped.
I would like to thank the many colleagues and associates who assisted me in my research and treatment, and in the preparation of this paper. In particular, thanks to aNancy Turner, Manuscript Conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, for her consultation, and my studio associate Micol Hebron. In addition, I would like to thank Dr. Page duBois, Professor of Classical Studies and Comparative Literature at UC San Diego, Indian art specialists Christine Knoke at the Norton Simon Museum and Dr. Stephen Little at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the LACMA Conservation Center for use of their library and resources.
Susan Sayre Batton
Art Conservation & Consulting Services
Los Angeles, California
Agrawal, O.P., Conservation of Manuscripts of Southeast Asia.
Agrawal,. O.P., "Investigations for preservation of birch-bark manuscripts",
Preprints of ICOM Committee for Conservation, Vith Triennial Meeting, Ottawa (1981) Paper.
Filliozat, Jean, "Manuscripts on birch-bark (Bhurja patra) and their
preservation", The Indian Archives, 1 (1947) 102-8
Harle, J.C., The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent.