ABC – Ancient Book Crafts

Understanding and interpretation of manuscripts, bindings, books and other library objects relies, to a great extent, on the material history of the object. When its date of production not explicitly stated, scholars need to rely on contextual information, such as calligraphic style, binding type, or other historical evidence. In such cases, scientific research can be helpful, the dating method based on radiochemical decay of C14 being a well-known example.

To explore the potential of non-destructive spectroscopic methods, ABC will explore, validate and evalaute the robustness of dating on the basis of infrared spectroscopy. In an early application, an object from the National Archives of the Netherlands (Fig. 1), with two possible dates associated with it (1314 and 1469), was successfully dated using NIR spectroscopic dating entirely non-destructively.

Fig. 1: Document from the archive of Graven van Holland, inv. No. 189, reliably dated by Strlic et al. using NIR spectroscopy.

Project ABC will use either Near Infrared (NIR) or Attenuated Total Reflectance (ATR) Fourier-Transform mid-Infrared (FTIR) followed by multivariate calibration, on a set of well-dated objects from the collections of Klosterneuburg (Austria), the National and University Library (Slovenia) in collaboration with the Czech National Library in Prague.

The projects goals are:

  • Development of a pipeline for spectral collection for valuable and potentially brittle historical materials using diffuse reflectance FTIR, attenuated total reflectance FTIR and optical fibre-based reflection NIR spectroscopy, in collaboration between scientists and conservators.
  • Development of a substantial database of objects consisting or parchment, paper, ink, leather and/or other typical materials in the four participating heritage collections, the aim being to develop calibration and validation sets, but also objects of unknown declared age, for testing.
  • Evaluation of robustness of the dating method, its transferability between the participating collections, and evaluation of the effect of past environmental conditions as well as chemical and biological damage on the accuracy of dating.
  • Historical and codicological research into the materials used according to morphological criteria (i.e. type of wood, type of leather, parchment, splits, adhesives, etc.) as well as of historical binding techniques. Recording and evaluation of all stamp motifs on medieval leather bindings (dated, datable, undated), especially with regard to workshop-attribution (provenance).

Planned research:

  • A number of unreliably dated objects will be analysed using codicological methods of research in order to support the establishment of a reliable reference framework for IR dating models.
  • Using the selected reference objects we will take mid-IR and NIR spectra in various configurations, this will allow us to examine the effect of instrument type and sampling method on the quality of dating predictions.
  • A number of objects from each collection will be analysed and dating predictions compared using the mid-IR and NIR-based tools. The results will be compared and evaluated across institutions as well as in comparison with codicological analysis.
  • Characterization and classification of writing and binding material.


The project (N1-0271) is funded through the WEAVE programme in collaboration between FWF (The Science Fund – Austria) and ARRS (Slovenian Research Agency) and involves:

  • BOKU – University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Austria (Johannes Tintner)
  • ÖAW – Institute of Medieval Research, Austria (Maria Theisen)
  • UL – Heritage Science Laboratory Ljubljana at UL Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology (Matija Strlič)
  • NUL – National and University Library, Slovenia (Nataša Golob, Jasna Malešič)

In collaboration with:

  • NLCR – National Library of the Czech Republic (Petra Vavrova)
  • KN– Abbey Library and Archives of Klosterneuburg

Please contact us for further information or to establish collaboration.

Scientific achievements:

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