Friday, 10 June 2016

Searching for British Library Manuscripts, Trying to understand 19th Century Palaeography through Calligraphy practice, and Iron Gall Ink!

The amazing treasure trove that is the British Library! Despite the wealth of resources available there, I always feel like its catalogues are so arcane and confusing that I think it is worth making a list of things I wish they told me from the start, if it will save someone else from the confusion I had in the reading rooms - with embarrassingly noisy book stand apparatus that no one tells you how to use, and thousand paged manuscripts wrapped in very complicated cake boxes with string!...



  • Archives are in a separate catalogue. On the BL page and dropdown menu: Catalogues > MANUSCRIPTS > Archives and Manuscripts.
  • There may be a "handlist" on open shelves for reference. The handlist is a list of items which are on display or which are available for requesting within a specific collection.
  • Ordering Microfilm: There is a microfilm option hidden at bottom of Request Other Items. So even if the item is technically a copy of something from Private Papers, you should order it under Microfilm. Again, I wish this was explained clearly from the very beginning.
  • Before leaving the counter, check that the item you have received is actually the actual item you have ordered. Yes, I have had the unusual fortune of receiving the wrong item after patiently waiting well over an hour for it!
  • Although the rooms close at 5, it seems that by 4.30 they'll start to ask for the special materials to be returned.
  • You have to leave most things outside and you have to use a plastic bag to bring things in
  • You cannot bring pens in. You can only bring pencils.
  • You cannot take photos of some historical material. But if you have retrieved it in microfilm form, you can take as many pictures as you want for free on your mobile phone camera. (I'd really like to find out what is the rationale for this rule?...)
  • You need a pound coin to use the lockers downstairs. (Interestingly, people also regularly forget to take their £1 coin deposit from their lockers at the basement. Just sayin...!)

Recently I wanted to look for some historical documents which were held under the India Office Records. It was then that I realised that I have never handled primary historical material before, so when the librarian asked me if I wanted original or microfilm I was confused. ORIGINAL OR MICROFILM? No one had ever asked me to choose between the two! Should I want to see the microfilm instead of the original? Is the copy truly identical to the original? I suppose I am not a historian, and I'm not usually doing such research involving very old materials, hence most of the records I have sought out in the past were all microfilm. How did this happen???

Aaaaaaaand that was how I ended up handling some original copies of Sir Stamford Raffles' letters to his sister. I became intensely afraid of suddenly developing a explosive nosebleed whilst hovering close to the thin slips of paper, almost translucent in the light. And tragically, it was then that I also realised... I COULD NOT READ THE HANDWRITING. It was almost a flat line! And what is going on the letter r and ff? And had all these weird squiggles about it! And why did people use only a perplexingly small portion of the entire paper???

Furthermore, whilst looking through other EIC documents, I realised that I had extreme difficulty with copperplate, even though it represented the standardisation of administrative script! Doom! I imagined the eagle eyes of the librarians boring into the back of my skull as I opened up the paper and could do nothing more than attempt to decode it letter by letter... I took so long that it was closing time. The librarian then told me, "You know, you should get the microfilm next time, then you can take photos and read it off the photograph more slowly." MORE SLOWLY? HOW MUCH MORE SLOWER CAN I DO THIS?

A few days later, I decided to should try to get to grips with things by learning calligraphy or copperplate. Again, this turned out to be another first for me, and I realised I had never used an ink pen. Oddly enough, I had used a lot of digital "grunge" or ink effects in photoshop when I was a teenager, because it was all the rage at the time. But ink splotches were nothing more than things people made as packs of images and shared online, or digitally mimicked with photoshop brushes! Ink wells? Actual ink? Who used ink? Unbelievable that my life has been dominated by the digital ways! Well, never too late I guess...


On 27 May I decided to get a calligraphy pen set. These nibs were wack and not bendy in the least. The result was boring. And I had no idea what I was doing.

On 1 June I got some interesting nibs in the mail - the Brause Rose, Leonardt Hiro, and a few others. The results began to improve.

1 June 2016

6 June 2016

8 June 2016

Sumi Ink. I have learnt the hard way that you should not turn the bottle upside down....

The ink that came with this beginner's set of inks was Indian Ink, but apparently Indian Ink was invented in CHINA, but the carbon materials for Indian Ink come from India. At first I thought this carbon ink must be the ink that everyone had used for all the documents that I could expect to see in the British Library collections (originating from the UK). It sounded logical on the surface and it is an old ink with some history....

But as I looked into historical inks, I found out that the standard ink that was used in medieval europe (5th - 19th c) was actually an iron gall ink? Made specifically from.... OAK GALLS! Gallotannic acids were extracted from galls in trees (how did they find all these galls? Does it mean it would have been widely celebrated, to find these galls? Were there gall hunters??)

How on earth did they discover that these galls were useful for making ink??? The earliest mention appears to have been by Pliny the Elder (23AD - 75AD) who noted that verdigris (iron) + an infusion of nut galls equals BLACK ON PAPYRUS. A brief search online of the history of iron gall ink brings up many pages suggesting that it is not really known when people transitioned from carbon inks to iron gall ink, but for the most part by the medieval times people were mainly using iron gall ink due to its permanence, non-clogging action (compared to carbon-based ink like indian ink), and "relative ease of production" (WHERE WERE ALL THE GALLS COMING FROM? DOES THAT MEAN THERE WAS A WHOLE MARKET FOR TRADING GALLS?)

I guess galls are easier to find than carbon if that material had to come from overseas! And today it seems more likely for me to be able to buy a whole load of... carbon on ebay as opposed to locating elusive plant galls in nature!

Oak galls have been used in the production of ink since at least the time of the Roman Empire. From the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, iron gall ink was the main medium used for writing in the Western world

Why did I not know this when I last did research about galls??? Apparently many significant manuscripts were written using iron oak gall ink, including one of the oldest Bibles, the Codex Sinaticus (around 4C). Also, despite not being used widely today, in the UK, registrars today still are required to use a special blue-black archival quality ink which apparently has ferro gallic compounds - used to sign official documents such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates and on clergy rolls and ships' logbooks!

Now.... I finally have a functional reason to go out and hunt for more oak galls!...


The Life and Death of Snail: How to keep snails and preserve their shells



I don't know why I haven't made a more lengthy post about snails until now! Hello world and horrified neighbours, I've been rearing terrestrial mollusks of the English Garden persuasion for over a year now! (I like to call my tank "Snail TV" - its pretty soothing to watch them slide around like bizarre alien marzipan swans). George thinks I'm obsessed about them because they're a bit like rocks with faces on them, and I think there is some truth to that. They are so strange! But reactive and very very curious!

20150529_155904_Burgoyne Rd


It first began because I found all these snails outside, and then I got very excited about observing their behaviour, and how they ate, but George said I could only have as many "pet snails" as I could identify by name. So we began with five little snails - Robinson Crusoe (a very adventurous but not very hungry snail), Wetherspoons (a very hungry snail), Harvester (an even more hungry snail), Prince of Wales (a yellow grove snail) and Shakespeare (a late comer who appeared to be shunned by the others).

For a period I also almost kept slugs but I discovered that the slugs were aggressively invasive SPANISH SLUGS which I felt bad about returning to the wild after I had discovered what they were. So I put the slugs on our roof. I have to admit I am not sure if this has contributed to the increase in the sound of flapping wings of birds from on top of our roof. But I figured it was a kind of tactical course for the slugs where they have to try to survive on top of our mossy roof. I don't want to kill them but by putting them on the roof, I am lowering their chances of out-eating the local snails and slugs on the ground.

Best part is that snails are like some kind of natural 3D extruder. For example, they love to eat paper and cardboard. I was giving them a habitat made of coloured egg boxes, but they like to eat the boxes and now all their poop (and habitat) is purple, orange, and green.



To be honest I think of them as simple machines, they slide around and they swivel their food detecting feelers around until BEEP! FOOD DETECTED! And the snail deploys its nommmmming action. (Although I HATE the word nom in most cases, it seems appropriate for snails as their mouth does indeed look a lot like "nommmmm" from afar.



Now it is about a dozen generations on and we have re-wilded many snails since and kept as many as we think we can comfortably keep.





A picture from December 2015, before population explosion


The "Nursery": I isolated batches of babies into smaller tanks at one point, because the babies were occupying the corners where the adults seem to like to sit.


This was a short-lived experiment in which I tried to grow food for snails - to make a closed cycle of feeding and growing. We need something fast growing because they eat very very fast. I used mung bean sprouts for the first experiment. The sprouts became uncontrollable after a few days and then about two weeks later all the stupid sprouts died suddenly! With that, some sort of change in the air caused all the snails to estivate. So they were moved back to boring old "feeding" tanks.

Some notes from my first year of snailkeeping:

  • Snails eat most vegetables except for leek/onion/garlic type vegetables. They don't seem to like very acidic fruits like sweet berries and bananas. They may become picky if given too much choice, such as ONLY EATING THE SOFT CENTRES OF CUCUMBERS AND THEN NOT EATING THE REST, or ONLY EATING THE SOFT CENTRE OF A CARROT.
  • Snails must be fed cuttlefish bone or some other source of calcium. We went with cuttlefish bone which contrary to what one might imagine, is not harvested from live cuttlefishes. People scavenge for the bones on the seaside and then sell it for money so that pets with shells/beaks can eat these supplements. Oh and what happens in the wild? I suppose the snail will lick your walls then...
  • Snails will climb upwards if it is wet
  • Cocopeat is a great and clean snail tank bedding material
  • Do not allow snails to crawl on to a laptop which is metallic including macbook pros - a current passes through them when they crawl on metal and the snail will froth up
  • Do not allow snails to crawl on exposed metal, foil, copper, they will froth up
  • Do not give beautiful fruit and vegetable without washing thoroughly - sometimes pretty fruit has more pesticides, snails won't eat them (it was designed to stop them anyway)
  • When garden snails develop a white lip at the end of their shells, they have become adults
  • Do not give pasta or rice, they may overfeed and explode.
  • If you wiggle a string in front of them, they will crawl up the string
  • If you wiggle your finger just in front of their faces, they will crawl up onto your finger, unless they aren't in the mood to slither about.
  • When they have detected edible surfaces, their mouthfeelers and seeingfeelers will droop downwards, almost becoming fat and stout at the same time. If their seeingfeelers are fat and droopy, you can bet that they are probably chewing on something at the moment.
  • Some snails like eating a lot more than others. Some like digging themselves a hole and hiding all the time.


The lifespan of these garden snails is about 3 years apparently. And snails lay dozens and dozens of eggs in each clutch. And amongst those baby snails, some will die for seemingly no reason at all. It is almost as if some snails just lose the will to live.

A while back, an adult snail passed away whilst I was away. It was the first young adult snail (white lip already grown) to die like this so I had to figure out what to do. I wanted to keep his shell as well, but I needed to clean it somehow. The problem was that it was not easy to remove the body from the shell. George was not keen that I boil the snail in one of our pots. And I don't have a garden, otherwise I could have buried the shell and allowed nature's little workers (ants, etc) to eat and clean out the shell. (In professional forensics/museum situations, a dermestarium with lots of Dermestid beetles (carrion beetles) is used as they are more meticulous than humans and it puts less stress on the bone/shell)

Although I had concerns that freezing the shell might cause it to crack when the water expands inside it, this method I found to have worked perfectly without damaging the shell. This also works for tinier shells.


  1. Place snail in a plastic bag
  2. Fill plastic bag with some water so the shell is submerged, and place bag into a container
  3. Place in fridge with label so no one gets a shock when they look into container in the freezer
  4. Let it freeze overnight
  5. Thaw it the next day
  6. Dead snail will have detached from shell so you can clean the shell in water without doing some horrifying digging
  7. Dry and polish with mineral oil so the shell won't dry out and the layered patterns on the shell won't crack up and peel off.