Sold to the British Museum in 1868, the ‘Hay cookbook’ and associated spells on leather were acquired in Egypt by the Scottish traveller, antiquary, draughtsman and collector Robert Hay (1799–1863).

Written in the sixth or seventh century AD, the so-called cookbook contains formularies and ingredients for a variety of magical and medical purposes, and the spells contain invocations of supernatural powers to provide protection and to assist in the pursuit of sex, business and favour.

The texts make use of short narrative analogues (historiolae) with sometimes surprising interpretations of stories from the Bible and other Christian texts and, based on a new reading, a reference to ancient Egyptian mythology (EA 10391).

Now darkened with age, the texts are largely illegible. Infrared imaging in the 1930s allowed scholars to read much of the text and provide preliminary editions and translations. Today the manuscripts show additional cracks, fragmentation and discolouration; they have suffered slippage in their mounts and urgent conservation is required.

There is currently no standard conservation treatment and mounting solution available for this type of object and damage, requiring new methods and an innovative mounting technique to be developed. The work provides the opportunity to apply a range of scientific approaches in order to better understand the production and use of the manuscripts and the cultural context of their production.


Project aims and outputs

The project aims to study, edit and translate, scientifically investigate, and develop and carry out full conservation treatment and mounting for the Hay Coptic magical manuscripts on leather.

The results will be presented in a multi-disciplinary monograph containing the first complete edition and English translation, accompanied by a full record of the scientific analyses performed and description of the new approach developed for conservation and mounting such texts. The project aims to provide a model, integrated approach to the publication of ancient texts as archaeological objects.

Project research

The manuscripts will be conserved and presented in purpose-made mounts. They will be fully documented by multi-spectral imaging, including infrared-reflected (IRR), Ultraviolet-reflected (UVR) and Ultraviolet-Induced luminescence (UVL) in order to reveal the text more clearly.

Reflectance Transform Imaging (RTI) and digital microscopy will be used to examine the micromorphology of the leather surfaces, providing evidence for hide treatment and subsequent changes to the leather. Further scientific analysis aims to radiocarbon date the objects; identify the animal species and determine whether or not some or all sheets are from the same animal; confirm the presence of tannins and the type of ink (carbon or iron gall) employed. The results will inform the cultural context of their production.

Project team

Staff from a number of British Museum curatorial and research departments are contributing to this project.


Presentations given or to be delivered

L.-A. Skinner, R. Stacey, B. Wills, L. Spindler and E. R. O’Connell, A multi-analytical study of the ‘Hay cookbook’: Coptic magical manuscripts on leather reveal their mysteries, TECHNART 2017- Non-destructive and microanalytical techniques in art and cultural heritage, Bilbao, Spain, 2 May 2017.

L.-A. Skinner, R. Stacey, B. Wills, L. Spindler and E. R. O’Connell, The Hay Cookbook and other Coptic magical manuscripts on leather reveal their secrets, Science of Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technologies. Cairo, Egypt, 4–6 November 2017.

B. Wills, L.-A. Skinner and E. R. O’Connell, Conserving, analysing and studying the ‘Hay Cookbook’: Revelations from magical ancient leather texts, Care and conservation of manuscripts, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 11–13 April 2018.

 

Images:
top, EA 10122 in visible, infrared and false colour images;
Bottom left, detail of 10434b, infrared image;
bottom middle, detail of 10434b, false colour image;
bottom right: the project team at work.