Reconstructing Burnt Anglo-Saxon Fragments

in the Cotton Collection at the British Library

Andrew Dunning, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies

Alison Hudson, The British Library

Christina Duffy, The British Library

Abstract: The British Library conducted a Fragmentarium case study in 2017 to explore the possibilities for improving access to burnt fragments of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from the Cotton Collection. Multispectral imaging and analysis undertaken by Dr Christina Duffy at the British Library Conservation Centre has revealed more details from the surviving fragments than are otherwise visible. The complexity of multispectral imaging presents challenges for online display and long-term storage that need to be addressed in future manuscript digitisa-tion initiatives.

Keywords: multispectral imaging, Angl0-Saxon manuscripts, British Library

The burnt fragments of the Cotton manuscripts are among the most evoca-tive artefacts of medieval culture, both for the tragedy of their destruction and the mystery of their contents. Many of the surviving leaves remain critical to scholarship, often containing unique texts or their earliest known copies, but have not been easy to read for centuries. In many cases, their state of conserva-tion means that researchers can only consult them with curatorial permission. The creation of Fragmentarium presented an opportunity to make some of the most important surviving fragments accessible to readers in a digital form. This project digitised a selection of known Anglo-Saxon fragments using multispec-tral imaging (MSI) to create enhanced images that expose far more details than observable with the naked eye.

The Cotton collection and its conservation

The library assembled by Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) originally included manuscripts, state papers, printed books, coins and inscriptions. Cotton was famously in the vein of early modern antiquarians who were more collectors than historians, and happily rearranged the volumes they acquired. Although

Fragmentology I (2018), 7–37, DOI: 10.24446/4f2i