Biologies and Ethnologies of the Book: a one-day interdisciplinary workshop on Deciphering the Indigenous Artifact Language of the Edinburgh Indian Primer.

This interdisciplinary seminar, hosted by the Centre for the History of the Book brings together experts in literary studies, book history, chemistry, archaeology, and biology to create dialogue between disciplines and further understand approaches to early and Native American material and print culture.

The afternoon’s seminar opened with Dr. Steffi Dippold of Kansas State University, whose historical account of John Eliot’s ‘Indian Primer’ (1669) introduced the object as a unique example of an early American printed book with an indigenous binding. The white cover retains a partially obscured strawberry patterned embossing that Dr. Dippold argues acts as a metaphor for the common ground felt between the mission of John Eliot (a man referred to as the ‘Apostle to the Indians’) and the Native American Wampanoag community – with the strawberry symbolising both European purity and to the Wampanoag community and abundance. The binding also offered an interesting note about the history of bookmaking in America – the scale board binding fell out of favour in Europe around 1600 whereas it endured in America until the turn of the 20th Century. Dr. Dippold’s paper introduced an indigenous artefact that provided a tangible way of thinking through what were to follow: approaches to textiles, dyes, books, and porcupine quills. At the centre lay a commitment to advocating for both the conservation of the material object, and the study of indigenous culture.

The seminar then transitioned to think about materials used in book production, and how research from conservation, collection science and chemistry can work together to aid understanding and conservation of materials and books. Professor Alison Hulme raised such a point in her paper ‘Fashion, Conservation and Science’ wherein she explained how work occurring between the University of Edinburgh and other Scottish institutions has brought together expertise from research areas including her own, being natural product synthesis, chemical biology and historical dyestuffs, with those of colleagues Anita Quye (senior lecturer at University of Glasgow department of History of Art) whose research focuses on textile conservation and technical art history, and Lore Troalen (who also presented at the seminar) who works for National Museums Scotland.

Professor Hulme’s talk was followed by a display and presentation of books from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections by Elizabeth Lawrence, rare books librarian at the CRC, which focussed on John Eliot’s Publications in Edinburgh University Library. The books on display included the 1669 Indian Primer that provided the conceptual nexus of the afternoon, which was featured heavily in Dr. Dippold’s opening talk, among other books by John Eliot or of relevance to studies of native American book history. Lawrence’s talk also shone a light on the ways in which these rare books entered the library, the Indian Primer being donated by a ‘Mr Ja[mes] Kirton, Aprile 19: 1675’, only six years after its publication in America.

Dr. Sarah Fiddyment, British Academy Research Fellow at the University of York followed the examination and explication of the rare books with a fascinating paper on ‘Biocodicology – Revealing the Hidden Biological Histories of Books’. Dr. Fiddyment laid out what can be gleaned from analysis of DNA and protein sampling of bindings and parchment pages of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. Identification of species, sex, breed, and handling are all possible from DNA analysis using a non-invasive sampling method pioneered by Dr. Fiddyment which uses triboelectric extraction of skin collagen which can then be treated with the same mass fingerprinting used for other peptides. This is a process called eZooMS (electrostatic zooarcheology by mass spectrometry). Dr. Fiddyment then went on to explain what is meant by a ‘metagenome’. This is a perspective that sees the book as a ‘biological palimpsest’ where multiple organisms, from the goats, sheep and cows that make up the structure of the codex converge with the ‘human-associated microbial profiles’ (particles mainly from the nose and skin) that have accumulated from the thousand-year history of the York Gospels that Dr. Fiddyment used as her primary example.

Last to speak was Dr. Lore Troalen, mentioned earlier, who works for National Museums Scotland who presented her research into the Subarctic Athapaskan Quillwork. Dr. Troalen’s work puts the dyed porcupine quills through systematic analysis to find out what dyes were used and how sensitive they are to light so as to best display and prevent decay. Here again the question of samples arose, with Dr. Troalen’s work using micro-samples or where possible non-invasive samples. It was concluded that the dyes used for the creation of the vibrant quills were indigo carmine, turmeric, and American cochineal, which, contrary to previous studies, showed that the Athapaskan communities were able to source dyestuffs from Europe (indigo carmine), and India (turmeric).

The afternoon raised questions at the heart of book history today, about how non-European indigenous printing and book making networks can be researched despite a lack of contemporary accounts and documentation or indeed primary sources. What united the speakers at the seminar was an investment in collaborative work between disciplines, institutions, and fields to research the past so that those areas that have, for political and cultural reasons have been left unresearched can be interrogated, and that we can stabilise the conditions of historic artefacts for future use, by researchers and members of the public.

Report by Ted Simonds, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

  1. Sarah Fiddyment, et al. “Animal Origin of 13th-Century Uterine Vellum Revealed Using Noninvasive Peptide Fingerprinting.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 49, 2015, pp. 15066–15071.
  2. Teasdale, Matthew D, et al. “The York Gospels : a 1000-Year Biological Palimpsest.” 2017.

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