By Holly Huston Krueger
The Gandhara Scroll is one of several manuscripts recently unearthed in Afghanistan that contain the oldest known Buddhist writings to date. Their importance to history is akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Scroll had been ritualistically interred in a terra cotta pot and buried in a Stupa over 2000 years ago. The Scroll is written in carbon ink on a birch bark support and dates from the 1st c BC. Arriving at the Library in 2007 in this unassuming Parker Pen pencil box, the Scroll is among the most fragile objects ever encountered in our office. The thought of unrolling the Scroll was daunting, particularly since research revealed that buried cellulose behaves differently from the cellulose based materials we are familiar with. We sought the advice of conservators at the British Library who have considerable experience with ancient and buried materials having successfully unrolled their collection of early Buddhist manuscripts.
The ultimate unrolling and preservation between glass of the Library’s Gandhara scroll was “low tech” but instructive in its simplicity. As with most treatments, the bulk of the project was spent in looking, thinking and testing. Because the two thousand year old birch bark is so fragile and every word so precious, each step in its preservation was particularly measured. The physical treatment carried out at the Library of Congress began with a gradual humidification of the scroll over the period of several days. Using specially fashioned, simple tools, the team gently unrolled the scroll and placed it between two sheets of Boro-float glass. The edges were sealed and placed in a custom clam shell box designed to dampen vibrations and discourage handling. Samples were taken for C-14 analysis and high resolution photographs made to enable scholars to digitally stitch the fragments together.