The One Where the Archivist Babbles On About Paper Preservation

Marielle

Well-Known Member
(of course I miss the session on 6/16 where we actually talk about archives and archival preservation!)

Catching up on this week's session, Corey spent a brief moment discussing the likely condition of Isildur's scroll and, as I am professionally interested in such matters, I'm going to throw in my own two cents here. And I've got to admit, the survival of this text seems unlikely, to say the least.

Firstly, and obviously, the manuscript would likely be in pieces, and if not would certainly be in an extremely delicate condition, requiring care in handling (and yes, I am horrified at PJ's Gandalf's poor archival practices), but I am "hesitantly* willing to believe that it is *just* possible that enough would survive for Gandalf to read the all-important section about the Ring's writings.

Assuming the scroll is on parchment (Faramir, I believe, specifically mentions things written on parchment when discussing lore in Gondor) the scroll is going to be a LOT more stable than modern paper, which is made of wood-pulp and drowned in chemicals to bleach it white; such paper is highly acidic and becomes fragile very quickly in its life-cycle. Parchment, on the other hand, holds up pretty well so long as the basics of archival preservation are taken, these including:

1) limiting exposure to light
2) maintaining a moderate and consistent temperature and humidity
3) preventing exposure to moisture
and
4) preventing damage by insects or other vermin.

This is less daunting, however, than first might appear. The great archives of Gondor wouldn't have centralized climate control, but if the weather in Minas Tirith is temperate (like, say, San Diego), the roofs don't leak, and the archivists keep a few good mouser cats around, the basics could be pretty satisfactorily kept and the parchment remain in decent condition for a thousand years or so. Problem is, we're speaking of 3,000 years old. I don't believe we even have any parchment from that long ago in human history -- at least not in Europe or the Mediterranean. Herodotus mentions some peoples writing on animal skins in the 5th century BCE, but I'm not aware of any surviving examples from before the 3rd century CE. But no city in Europe or the Mediterranean has stood for the last 3,000 years without being sacked or hit by a natural disaster or somehow otherwise damaged and set on fire, so I'm willing to concede that the archives of Minas Tirith would fair better than any earthly collection has managed.

There's another complicating issue: Gandalf specifically refers to Isildur's writings as being on a scroll. Scrolls have whole other issues of preservation, especially as the edges are very easy to damage: if you roll a scroll too tightly, the innermost section will often crack and crumble; and the outermost section, being exposed to the elements, is frequently frayed or stained or otherwise damaged by its environment. But presuming that Isildur's account does not likely begin or end with the relevant Ring passage, that text might be salvageable if located near the middle. Still, the find is rather miraculous.

Frankly, Gandalf should have waxed poetic on his good fortune in finding a manuscript in fair enough condition to read, rather than sniped about Denethor's attitude!
 

Marielle

Well-Known Member
Another reason that Elves seem to rely more on memory than on written records?
Possibly! If you live thousands of years, written records no longer look more permanent! Of course, humans also use records written "in the moment" because our memory can fade or change, but elves' memories seem to work differently from ours.
 

Forodan

Active Member
The class does take at least a fleeting notice in the discussion of certain words Gandalf uses when referring to the scroll. He says:
"And Boromir, there lies in Minas Tirith still, unread, I guess, by any save Saruman and myself since the kings failed, a scroll that Isildur made himself."
On the one hand, "since the kings failed" was not 3,000 years ago, but only about 1,000 years. Not an impossibly long time for some types of material to survive in the right conditions, as you note. Yet on the other hand he believes this scroll was made by Isildur himself, which requires it to be the original, not a copy made by some archival staff. This is certainly a serious problem for conventional knowledge of preservation of written records.

But that is true of much of what happens in Tolkien's world. The Last Bridge has got to be around 2,000 years old, and yet appears to be perfectly safe to use. There are some Roman roads still in use in Europe. Are there any bridges that old? Even if so, how long are they, I wonder? And have they remained in their usable state without any maintenance or repairs for thousands of years? That really makes me wonder. Elrond has been living in Imladris/Rivendell for literally thousands of years. Since before the Last Alliance. Does Tolkien describe any of the structures in the valley as appearing very old and weathered? Does Elrond periodically rebuild things? How does he keep the river from undermining his home?

The Eldar themselves do not seem to be totally immortal, but they age so slowly that it makes little difference. (Cirdan is described as appearing old, but he is one of the original folk to awaken at Cuivienen by the time Tolkien gets around to placing him in the Silmarillion.) It's a favorite trope with Tolkien to make things so very old that our conventional scales of history are overwhelmed.

Minas Tirith itself is now more than 3,000 years old. What sort of labor is devoted to repairing and maintaining the interior buildings, I wonder? (The walls, of course, are some sort of 'magical' stone like Orthanc, apparently much harder than any other sort of stone and immune to weathering.) I would say that Minas Tirith mostly likely has a "Mediterranean" climate, given its location. There must be a fair amount of rain for the Pelennor fields to be so fertile and productive. After 3,000 years I would wonder if the mountain it was built against would be eroding away. Even if the outer walls are magically immune to erosion, the mountain they attach to would not be. Or the river might move enough to strand the ruins of Osgiliath, or undermine the walls of the Pelennor. Realistic effects of time on structures and landscapes just don't seem to apply in Tolkien's world. So it's not surprising that they don't apply to other things when necessary.

Once he had committed to making the background history to the scale he chose, he was committed to making any necessary information survive the gap regardless of any practical obstacles. The scroll had to survive. If this problem had been pointed out to him while alive, he most likely would have said that the Numenoreans had better arts of preserving records (writing materials) than we know today, probably learned from the Eldar like most everything else. They were obsessed with defying death, remember. He calls them "a morbid folk" in one of the letters. And that their tombs were the grandest things they built. Which makes them seem rather Egyptian. Regardless of what the Eldar taught them, they could have learned interesting techniques for preservation of all sorts of things from their struggles to both postpone death and preserve dead bodies. (Again, making them seem rather like the Egyptians.)
 
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amysrevenge

Well-Known Member
Couple thoughts I've had while reading these.

"a scroll that Isildur made himself" If this was a reproduction, copied by a scribe a "mere" thousand years ago, would "made himself" be untrue or misleading? If I hold up my battered copy of the Lord of the Rings and call it "a book that Tolkien made himself" would I be telling a whopper because he didn't run the printing press and bind the cover himself? If the book was printed after his death even? If Isildur wrote the content of the scroll, a reasonable conversational description of the reproduction could be "made by Isildur". I'm not saying this is what happened, just that it could have happened and still been described the same way. A full rebuttal beginning with "well, actually..." could hone in on the exact providence of the scroll, but it wouldn't add much to the conversation at the time.

Why isn't Imladris run down? Elf magic, and especially Ring magic.

Why isn't Minas Tirith run down? I bet it is. Except areas deemed necessary, which would be in continual repair/upkeep. I would imagine there are generations of scaffolding manufacturers/installers constantly cycling through important buildings.
 

Flammifer

Well-Known Member
Hi Forodan,

Just to answer your question about are there any surviving Roman Bridges? Yes. Lots. Numbers vary from about 900 down to about 300, partly depending on the definition of 'surviving'. Fewer still carry road traffic than still exist in some partially ruined or disused form. But many still carry road traffic. The longest Roman Bridge still existing is the Puente Romano at Merida, 790 meters long. These bridges do not generally remain totally 'as built'. They need to be maintained, and have been maintained for circa 2,000 years.
 

Forodan

Active Member
The Mycenaean "bridge" looks like a wall with a hole in it. But the Roman bridge is impressive. A very long series of stone arches. The stones in those arches are original? Holding their positions for two thousand years? Roman roads were very over-engineered, and of course are solidly on the ground, so it's not surprising that they could survive. But if that bridge has not been substantially rebuilt since the Romans originally constructed it, that's really something. The Pantheon in Rome is a building that has stood since ancient times, but it's concrete not assembled stones.
 

NancyL

Member
When I was an engineering student, the professors told a story about how Roman engineers were required to stand under their bridges when the supports (used during construction) were removed. ;)

BTW - Also when I was an engineering student, I worked part/full time at the State Archives. (The Archivist had an engineer daughter and liked to support my efforts so he let me work whatever hours I could.) Most of my time was spent making books into microfilm. I wonder how that is holding up 40 years later.
 

Marielle

Well-Known Member
"a scroll that Isildur made himself" If this was a reproduction, copied by a scribe a "mere" thousand years ago, would "made himself" be untrue or misleading? If I hold up my battered copy of the Lord of the Rings and call it "a book that Tolkien made himself" would I be telling a whopper because he didn't run the printing press and bind the cover himself? If the book was printed after his death even? If Isildur wrote the content of the scroll, a reasonable conversational description of the reproduction could be "made by Isildur". I'm not saying this is what happened, just that it could have happened and still been described the same way. A full rebuttal beginning with "well, actually..." could hone in on the exact providence of the scroll, but it wouldn't add much to the conversation at the time.
You're right, the exact date and provenance of the scroll is up for debate, but I strongly suspect we're meant to believe it is the original, written by Isildur's hand alone. To luxuriate in crit-fic for a second, I suspect the mythic idea of the "secret kept in Isildur's hand itself" would be worth the preservation issues in Tolkien's imagination. On a more practical issue, the archaic nature of the text's language without any translation or even gloss provided -- as indicated by Gandalf's explanation as to no one has read it "since the kings failed" -- seems to count against a scribal reproduction. Also, the language "made by Isildur", in a pre-printing press context, seems to imply an effort in the creation of the document itself, not just its contents. But that's implied, not stated.

And you're right, there's a reason Gandalf doesn't digress into answering this question. After all, the exact nature of the scroll is only important insomuch as it helps establish the authenticity of the content therein, and Gandalf does not even suggest that is up for debate.

BTW - Also when I was an engineering student, I worked part/full time at the State Archives. (The Archivist had an engineer daughter and liked to support my efforts so he let me work whatever hours I could.) Most of my time was spent making books into microfilm. I wonder how that is holding up 40 years later.
Pretty well! Microfilm is incredibly sturdy -- the magnifying machines that we use to read them, not so much. LOL! But so long as you don't mind squinting or digging out a magnifying glass, you can still read microfilm from decades ago, no problem. (it's supposed to be able to last 500 years, kept properly. We'll see. Or, rather, our great-great-great-great-great-grandkids will.)
 

Darnok

Member
One also have to think about the materials the Parchment were made from, if it is beasts we have now, and if the Scroll would have been prepard with oinments or been "reinforced" in other ways. I am not familiar with preservatio techniques, but i can imagine it could have been "secured" with a linen and glue to stop the issue of breaking apart.
 

Marielle

Well-Known Member
No glue!
no capes.gif

Honestly, I don't know what pre-modern preservation techniques were, but most adhesives are *terrible* for preservation. Seriously: I *will* sick the ghost of William Barrow on you if use common glue.

(N.B.: there are archival-quality glues and adhesives, but they must be PH-neutral, which requires modern chemistry)
 
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