Recently, the Collection Care and Imaging teams collaborated with NXCT, The National X-ray Computed Tomography centre based at The University of Manchester. For the first time, objects from the Rylands collections were imaged using state of the art X-ray scanning facilities, in an attempt to reveal what’s hidden inside.
The John Rylands Library owns a significant collection of amulets, once owned by Rabbi Moses Gaster. The collection contains roughly 270 items, providing a comprehensive insight into diverse practices and beliefs. Most of the items were created for protection, especially against the ‘evil eye’, but some also function as protective means against specific illnesses and events. The majority of these amulets date between the 17th to the 20th centuries. Among the oldest artefacts in the collection are daggers, dating back to 2000-1000 BCE.
Gaster Amulet 34, exemplifies the category of protective amulets. This amulet is comprised of six metal cases, each with varying shapes, such as tubes, a rectangle, and a triangle. Designed to be worn around the neck of the individual seeking protection, the cases are carefully sealed, rendering their contents inaccessible. Though the precise contents remain inaccessible at present, it is expected that inside these cases lie amulets made of parchment or paper, inscribed with writings. These probably include protective passages from the Bible, along with angelic and divine names, all harnessed to protect the wearer from harm. If revealed, the content of these metal cases might disclose the wearer’s name and provenance, thereby enhancing our comprehension of the amulet’s historical and cultural context.
X-Ray Computed Tomography (CT) is a highly valuable means of deepening our material understanding of heritage objects. Not only can it help to identify and distinguish between distinct materials that may not be visible with the naked eye, it can also give insights into the construction of objects as well as potentially detect areas of internal damage. With this in mind Gaster Amulet 34 was selected by Collection Care as a prime candidate for X-ray CT to find out what, if anything, was contained within them.
From a Collection Care perspective, X-ray CT is highly advantageous as it is a non-invasive and non-destructive analytical process. This means that samples do not need to be taken from the object nor does it cause damage to obtain a detailed image of internal structures: this is of high importance to Collection Care to avoid interfering with the integrity of the objects. In the case of the amulets, images were generated that revealed the contents of the amulets without attempting to open them.
Of the four amulets that were imaged, the rectangular amulet appeared to yield the most interesting results. Instead of a folded piece of paper, the image showed that the amulet contained a loosely wound parchment scroll, even some handwritten characters on the parchment substrate could be seen. The detail of the image was such that it was possible to see that the scroll is wrapped in a type of textile allowing individual fibres to be distinguished. A higher resolution image may even allow the further details to be defined such as the textiles thread count, which may assist in in its identification without ever seeing the physical object.
A cylindrical Amulet was also scanned showing another scroll that was tightly wound inside the metal case. Viewed from above, the scroll appeared to have some possible breaks that may indicate damage or simply where one strip of parchment or paper ended, and another began. This sort of material and structural information is invaluable to Collection Care as it helps to build a coherent picture of the material properties, construction, and potential areas of damage, which can all be used to build treatment and storage plans should any conservation interventions be required in future.
Despite the clear benefits of X-ray CT, it is always wise to be mindful of potential limitations to the investigation of Special Collections. For instance, exposure of objects, particularly organic compounds, to X-radiation may increase the risk of causing further damage to the objects. While the risk of damage to an organic object such as parchment is minimal compared to a living organism, factors such as exposure time and radiation levels should be considered as possible risks of causing damage, particularly if objects need to be scanned multiple times to achieve high resolution images.
Furthermore, X-ray CT cannot yet be performed in-situ, which means that any objects need to be transported to the NXCT lab. This would increase security and handling risks and would also create limitations regarding the size of objects that could be examined. There are of course always ways to mitigate these risks, such as providing custom storage for transportation and secure couriering, but an awareness of these potential limitations and risks is key to ensure the safety of collections.
The images we were able to capture at a ‘quick’ low resolution scans revealed that there are indeed rolled, written scrolls inside the metal cases. The next steps are to return to NXCT with the amulets to perform much longer, higher resolution imaging. As we have already seen, there are indeed Hebrew characters visible, so with more resolution, we want to attempt to digitally unroll the scrolls to be able to read the full text for the first time since they were sealed.
Written by Gal Sofer, Cataloguer of the Gaster Amulet Collection
Heather Garner & Mark Furness – Collection Care
Jamie Robinson & Tony Richards – Imaging
Nicola Wadeson, Amin Garbout and Elizabeth Evans @ NXCT