Bioloogilise kahjustuse tulemusena lõhenenud, hapraks muutunud ja raskesti käsitletav pärgament kaldvalguses. Foto J. Heinla
Parchment that has cracked due to biological damage and become brittle and difficult to handle as seen in penetrating light. Photo: J. Heinla

Parchment has played a significant role in the development of European culture throughout the centuries. It has been used to create handwritten documents, books, functional items and art works. Parchment has been used to record texts about the most important events and ideas of early European history, interpretations of many stages of human development, as well as religion, science and literature.

Through the centuries, the use of parchment, a processed material made of animal skin, for writing has been related to various opinions and legends. Surviving records that are a couple of thousand years old have created a perception of parchment as a secret and wondrous writing material.

Today, the terms parchment and vellum, which were initially defined as being  made from animal material, have become synonymous with many other high-quality, durable and non-animal materials. For example, parchment paper, which is used as a name for various types of paper: plasticized paper (paper vellum),  made of plant fibers, heat-resistant paper, cardboard impregnated with petroleum bitumen, and plant-based semi-transparent paper. The terminological confusion is so great that the basic knowledge about parchment as a writing material of animal origins is lacking.

The purpose of the atlas recording to the characteristics and damage caused to parchment is to explain the nature of the parchment as a writing material of animal origins. The practical examples and analytical results included in the texts is based on a database compiled by the Conservation and Digitization Centre Kanut from 2010 to 2012, in the course of digitization of parchment documents from the Tallinn City Archives and Estonian History Museum dating from the 13th to 20th centuries, and the digitization of parchment documents from the Tallinn City Archives from 2013 to 2017. Web-based access to the parchments included in the atlas is available through VAU, the virtual research reading room of the National Archives, under Parchments.

The goal of the UNICA portal is to help conservators to document parchment (see the atlas of damages), predict the possible changes/deteriorations in the condition of records, and to conserve and organize their future preservation (see visual examination, status). It would be good if these texts could help to find the correct methodological approach at the start of the practical conservation process for describing the records, determining the damage and organizing subsequent preservation.

How to better organize the preservation and practical conservation of what is the optimal approach continue to be questions the answers to which do not come easily.

Until now, parchment, which has been used as a writing material for almost two thousand years, has been much less researched as a material than paper, which came into use in Europe in the 12th century. A whole series of practical questions related to conservation and the organization thereof, await answers. And this despite the fact that in recent years, scientists and keepers from various countries have cooperated to find answers to important questions related to the instability of parchment and the preservation of records (see Improved Damage Assessment of Parchment, IDAP, 2007; Codex Sinaiticus (23.11.2016); Archimedes Palimpsest (23.03.2016); Codex Gigas (23.03.2016).