the integrity of parchment conservation science requires palaeographic vigilance

Steven Avery

This is an explanation and call to action to those involved in manuscript conservation.


Today, I would like to share some questions about a famous manuscript, one where the superb digitization project of 2009 (the year it was placed online), the Codex Sinaiticus Project, helped reveal some amazing elements.

First, allow me to explain that the Codex Sinaiticus has a:
highly problematical provenance with no substance before the 1840s
allegations in the 1860s that it was a modern manuscript,
allegations in the 1860s that there had been colouring of the ms in the 1850s to make it look older
creative and suspicious fabrications surround its discovery and procurement.
And Sinaiticus has an unusual palaeographic dating history. The 4th-century date was pushed very aggressively, with minimal science, by its "discoverer" Constantine Tischendorf. This dating was quickly "set in stone" in textual circles by 1870-1880 despite various objections, minor and major. The palaeographic dating was based almost entirely on the pictures and descriptions in facsimile book editions, editions by Tischendorf that omitted salient facts about the manuscript's condition. It also included lots of theorizing on soft evidences, the script (a standard easy-to-emulate script) and the textual components. Hardly anybody was actually viewing and handling the manuscript. This situation is still true today, except that the Codex Sinaiticus Project allowed for viewing the ms. online and included solid numerical representations about items like colour and thickness and numerous other features.

The digitization revealed the fact that the two sections of the manuscript were different, in ways that are major anomalies.

1844 - 43 leaves - Leipzig - Codex Friderico-Augustanus - pristine white parchment - all leaves the same colour
1859 - 347 leaves - St. Petersburg-->England- - "yellow with age" - unusual colour variance in the leaves

A gentleman named David R. Smith has been studying Codex Fuldensis (it might be a couple of hundreds years later than commonly accepted) and made a salient comment:

"I do not trust palaeography to prove an old date, but I do trust it to disprove such a date.
It is easy to imitate what is antique, but impossible to predict what will be novel."
Palaeography is a non-symmetrical discipline, in terms of time chronology. Some professional palaeographers, especially Brent Nongbri, have been making this point on the common early papyri dating, that the range of years is often far too restrictive (in that case the issue is usually a couple of hundred years of range.) And all the researchers involved in identifying forgeries and replicas are very aware of this basic fact. However, in Bible textual manuscript dating, it is often left out of view.

Here is manuscript science 101, parchment manuscripts yellow with age and use:

Gavin Moorhead:
The colour of parchment varies with animal type, making process and condition or state of decline. New parchment can be near white but as it ages or is exposed to detrimental factors it will start to yellow and go brown-black if left to degrade completely. The colour change can also be influenced by the type of degradation and degree of gelatinization
Now we get to a key point. Leipzig is white parchment, it "forgot" to yellow. Overturning the known chemical processes. This was hidden from view publicly until after 2009, it was never mentioned in the Sinaiticus literature. (Porfiry Uspensky references this about the 1845 full manuscript before it was separated to two major sections, and Ernst von Dobsch?tz mentioned the Leipzig section as snow-white parchment in one publication in 1910.) This was never mentioned in the context of all the literature about palaeographic dating, from Tischendorf to Lake to Skeat & Milne to Parker and others today.

This white parchment anomaly alone should ring loud alarm bells, and should cause a full reappraisal of the dating of Sinaiticus. Then you add the flexible and supple condition, and then you add the colouring discussed below.

Note that there had been tests planned on these Leipzig pages for April 2015. Testings by BAM, Bundesanstalt f?r Materialforschung und -pr?fung in Berlin, a group which studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. Leipzig cancelled those plans. Leipzig does not want to discuss anything at all about the manuscript condition and history of conservation. (The British Library, to their credit, has engaged in open discussion, with various theories and conjectures about the unusual elements of the manuscript. Although for them the possibility of non-antiquity is an elephant in the living room that simply can not be there and can not be discussed :).)

So where does this leave us today?

Here you can see the wonderful condition of Sinaiticus. Flexible, supple, not at all brittles.

The Codex Sinaiticus: The Oldest Surviving Christian New Testament - The Beauty of Books - BBC Four

Sinaiticus in some cases used as the exemplar for parchment and ink longevity. If Sinaiticus is actually a modern production, the discipline and integrity of parchment conservation science is compromised. Thus, even if textual critics, a somewhat cloistered group with their own peculiar areas of emphasis, are not particularly concerned, the professionals in manuscript conservation and the sciences of the chemical processes are the ones who I believe should have the greatest concern.


Another major point. I have barely referenced the compelling evidence that the British pages taken from Sinai in 1859 were coloured by hand, perhaps using lemon-juice, matching the 1860s accusation. That was actually the first point that glared out at us as researchers. Why was there such a marked difference between Leipzig and the British Library pages? If you look at the:

Codex Sinaiticus Authenticity Research

Sinaiticus - authentic antiquity or modern?

you can learn a lot about the rather obvious colouring.


One of the difficulties here is that the evidences are so simple, clear and compelling.
This is difficult for those in the scholarly and academic realms!

All feedback from the manuscript experts welcome!


Steven Avery

ink science is compromised - fountainpennetwork

In reading and posting in the fountainpennetwork forum over the years, I saw this pernicious influence of the Sinaiticus error.

Again and again, Sinaiticus was used for the unusual longevity of certain inks, and how they do not necessarily have a significant effect on the parchment. Ink science would be modified to the "entrenched" place of an early Sinaiticus.

For now, I will just give one example from the forum, later I may try to bring forth more material. (Or you can simply search "Sinaiticus".)

An Iron Gall Inquiry

Look up the Codex Sinaiticus. The original writing was made with a good batch of IG ink and is still hard and black ...
As we have learned, Sinaiticus is always "exceptional" and now in a "phenomenally good condition".


Originally, this element was going to be placed on another thread:

improper ms dating will create circularity errors in the vellum and ink sciences

The Fountain Pen Network wanted to use Codex Sinaiticus as an example of ink lasting thousands of years without deteriorating the parchment.
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Steven Avery

the authenticity questions - where are the true palaeographers - corruption by partisan pseudo-palaeography

Some palaeographers have been working in interesting areas like the significance of grime and smudges, the handling of an ancient manuscript.

This is the beginnings of an "open letter" ..

"Where are the true palaeographers?"


The analysis may also have another helpful benefit. If we think about it, the lack of dirt, smudge and grime on a manuscript would create dissonance with the idea that the manuscript is ancient. Especially if it has a theorized heavy use (many correcters and section update scribes over the centuries being theorized.)

I've only run into one writer who specifically used that lack of dirt as an indication of non-authenticity. (Although it may have come up en passant in ms 2427, Archaic Mark, and other studies. This would be interesting to check.)

The Russian scientist Nikolai Alexandrovich Morozov (1854-1946) used that lack of grime and dirt as one of his pieces of evidences in asserting that Sinaiticus was not actually a 1500+year old manuscript. (The ms had, according to the accepted theories, been subject to continuous usage through the centuries.) As an example, Morozov discussed the lack of grime and smudging around the edges. He did not use any special scientific instruments
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And this was with Morozov not even being aware of the fact that the Leipzig and St. Petersburg sections were radically different in terms of their colours (an unusual white parchment in Leipzig) and staining (unusual sloppy staining in St. Petersburg, now in London.) Today, we can see this with our own eyes, online.

Today, it seems that some of the palaeographic analysis is circular. A date gets a partisan push, it becomes deeply entrenched in the scholarship, and then the cursory, hand-waving physical analysis changes, in order to match the accepted paradigm (developed outside of true palaeography) of the manuscript being ancient.

Thus, a person may say that a parchment manuscript is not necessarily subject to oxidation to any large degree, and there is no attendant expected yellowing. And the ink does not have an acidic effect on the parchment.

And what evidence to they have for these viewpoints? Is it a new chemistry understanding ? A new understanding of oxidation? Naahhh ... Simply look at the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus! This is given as the circular evidence of lack of deterioration.

Thus, it is possible for the science itself to become corrupted by a partisan palaeography.

And what was sort of accepted 150 years ago as the consensus agreement (even if the manuscript itself was rarely if ever examined by objective observers) develops its own inertia, and resistance to examination. This is where we are today.

And where are the true palaeographers?

Your thoughts most welcome and appreciated.