Unlocking the archive through scientific analysis: heritage science research at The National Archives

Author: Natalie Brown Senior Conservation Manger – Engagement

The purpose of the Collection Care Department at The National Archives is to ensure access to our collection through its long-term preservation and display. Through established and innovative programmes of environmental management, conservation treatment, and research initiatives we aim to prolong the life of our collection for future generations and enhance the artefactual value of archival collections beyond what is written on the page. As a department crouched in an Independent Research Organisation (IRO) we are able to co-create applied and interpretive heritage science projects that enable us to investigate the material composition and physical state of the collection, study how art materials were used throughout history, model how materials will degrade, and address changing conservation practices. Below are two projects highlighting how we do this in practice.

ArcHives

The aim of ArcHives is to use wax as a bimolecular archive to inform upon the geographic origin of beeswax (and bees); the changing diversity of the hive microbiome in modern; and historical beeswax and the DNA of individuals associated with the production of the legal documents trapped in kneaded wax. The National Archives holds over 250,000 seals dating from the 11th to the 20th Century and this project will allow us to explore our wax seal collection on a biomolecular level. We hope to gain knowledge around the material composition of wax seals in our collection which will allow for a deeper understanding of the physical and chemical processes responsible for their ageing and degradation. The four-year project is led by an international cross-disciplinary team of molecular biologists, palaeoproteomicists, heritage scientists, historians and chemists. Lora Angelova PhD, the Head of Conservation: Research and Engagement, is an advisor on this project.

A manuscript from 13th century with 56 wax seals attached.
Reference: DL 27/270. A document created in 1217-32 with 56 attached wax seals, housed at The National Archives. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

AI for DigiLab

AI for DigiLab aims to combine artificial intelligence and advanced imaging techniques to analyse historic map collections. The project is a collaboration between The National Archives, Nottingham Trent University – ISAAC group, Yale, Getty GCI, and University of Southern Maine- Osher Map Library. The National Archives holds around six million maps ranging from the 14th to 20th Century, some of which are hand-drawn and colourfully painted. Image techniques, such as x-ray fluorescence scanning or multispectral imaging, are useful to investigate the materials, such as pigments, inks and dyes, used by the mapmakers. In the project, algorithms will be used to analyse the large datasets produced from these imaging techniques to determine the materials present in the maps. We hope that by applying big data analysis to international historic map collections we can shed light on maps production context, the trade of the materials, and possible influences between the metropolis, the colonies and across media. Lucia Pereira-Pardo PhD, Senior Conservation Scientist is a co-investigator on this project.

Four variations on an image of a map of Ulster taken with multispectral imaging.
Multispectral imaging of a map of Ulster by Richard Bartlett (1603) with pigment and dye references taken by Lucia Pereira-Pardo. Image courtesy of The National Archives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s