Going on a Stain Hunt

The imaging schedule for the #Stains Alive project has been set. PIs will soon be welcoming Mike Toth, multispectral imaging expert from R. B. Toth and Associates, to the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and the University of Iowa. But before he arrives with his imaging equipment, the first task is to single out interesting-looking stains in our respective collections.


MS 257, f. 110r
University of Wisconsin, Special Collections, MS 257, f. 110r
Screen Shot 2017-10-21 at 7.51.41 PM
University of Pennsylvania, MS Codex 115.

In other words, we’re going on a stain hunt. For us, what makes a stain a possible candidate for imaging is its size, shape, placement on the page, color, and the genre of manuscript in which it appears. Stains found in alchemical texts or book of recipes may not be the same kind of stains that appear in a Bible or literary text. Indeed, a note on the book of remedies at right suggests that the stain is due to “a chemical spilled on the ms by an alchemist.”





IMG_2672Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 12.36.06 PMInformation about the stains chosen for imaging is catalogued in a spreadsheet, starting with the call number and the folio on which the stain appears. Since a camera will be attached to a copy stand and sit above the manuscript, we also measure the x and y axis of the folio/manuscript, as well as the z axis, i.e. how far the folio comes up from its base. If the stain appears on the recto of a folio, the z axis is measured from the back cover (for those manuscripts written in European languages) up to the folio with the stain. If the stain appears on the verso of a folio, the z axis is measured from the front cover up to the folio. Changing the focus on the camera each time a new stain is placed underneath it takes time, so having an idea of how far the stain sits above the table facilitates streamlining the sequencing of images so that the workflow can be as effective as possible.


MS 170a, Box 1, no. 8
University of Wisconsin, Special Collections, MS 170a, Box 1, no. 8

In between the measuring and the cataloguing of these manuscripts, it’s always nice to step back from measuring and entering data, and momentarily travel back through time to be in the room in which there was the manuscript and the person who accidentally, or perhaps intentionally, left a stain –  a visible physical trace of human interaction that has endured through the centuries and can be studied today with technology like multispectral imaging.


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 )

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