Flattening History: Conserving the Certificates for Adventurers 1665-1668

Zoë Reid, Senior Conservator, National Archives of Ireland

On 19 March 1642, King Charles I signed the Adventurer’s Act into law. The purpose of the Adventurer’s Act was to attract subscriptions to raise a private army to send to Ireland and crush the rebellion that had broken out in October 1641. The investors in this army, the Adventurers, were to be repaid in Irish land, seized from the defeated rebels. The Adventurers anticipated the total destruction of Catholic Ireland and made provision for the sequestration of 2.5 million acres. These plans were interrupted by the outbreak of civil war in England and Ireland remained unconquered until Cromwell’s campaigns, 1649-50.

When Cromwell decided that his soldiers should also receive Irish land in lieu of pay at the same rates as the Adventurers, a bitter row erupted between the two sides that was still unresolved when Charles II was restored to his throne in 1660. Charles II agreed to uphold the claims of both the Adventurers, as the Adventurer’s Act had been signed by his father, and the soldiers from the Cromwellian era as there was no other means with which to pay them. By then, two decades had passed during which time the rights to land had been bought and sold many times, or inherited. It took a further five years to figure out who was now entitled to what land.

These certificates are official copies of the investigations that took place in the 1660s and were intended to provide a final legal document that could be used to allow a patent to be issued, permanently confirming the rights of each new landowner and indemnifying them against any future claims. These rights were set out in two statutes, the Act of Settlement (1662) and Act of Explanation (1665). The results of these patents may be found in tabular form in the Books of Survey and Distribution.

When this large heavy parchment roll was unwrapped from the brown paper that had protected it for 95 years, it was found to contain 115 sheets of parchment certificates.

Fig 1: Certificates for Adventurers unwrapped

Parchment is animal skin which has been prepared for writing or printing, and is usually calf, goat, or sheep skin. Due to the size of the sheets, these documents are most likely sheep skin. Parchment was known to be long lasting, and it was the material traditionally used for important legal documents such as indentures, and land records.

Settling down to it

To provide access for researchers and for digistation, this large roll of certificates needed to be unrolled and separated. So how do you start to get something of this size flat? Well, if you have time, it can be an advantage. If a document, or in this case a roll of documents, is exposed to the ambient moisture in the air it can begin to change shape or ‘settle out’. This method of flattening of sheets is slow, but it does avoid the risk of damage. The roll was left to ‘settle’ and checked regularly and after nearly a year, I had the opportunity to start assessing it to see if it required more detailed conservation treatment.

Straightening things out

Each sheet was photographed to record the damage and to track the progress of conservation. Once imaged, a sheet was placed in a humidity chamber with the aim of relaxing the parchment without wetting it. An ultrasonic humidifier creates an extremely fine cold mist and the humidity in the chamber was increased to 85%. Each sheet was placed in the chamber for 20-30 mins; the time varied due to the difference in the thickness of each vellum sheet.

After being exposed to the higher level of moisture, the sheets were soft and flexible and could be manipulated safely to unfold edges and ease out creases. As these distortions were manipulated and straightened out, each sheet was placed on a metal worktop and held in place around the edges with small neodymium magnets.

The placement of magnets around the perimeter of the sheet was to restrict the movement of the parchment as the moisture evaporated. If the parchment is not held in position at this stage the sheet would have dried out unevenly and would be full of distortions making the text more difficult to read. Each sheet was left held in position overnight.

Progress was steady but slow. In order to increase the rate of conservation, I returned to a method which I had used previously on other collections to allow work to be carried out on more than one sheet simultaneously. Using cushioned fold back-clips with Velcro tabs and an adapted canvas stretcher frame, the humidified sheet of parchment was dried under tension to remove the distortions. This technique requires a fair bit of skill to master as it can be a bit fiddly, and the parchment needs to have no damage along the edges, which is why it could not be used for every sheet, but for many it provided successful results.

Fig. 2 Straightening sheets: two methods

What has this object taught me

The joy for a conservator working on documents like these is the combination of fine-tuning skills and learning about the material that you are working with by close examination. Every sheet is different! The quality and size of the parchment varies; there are flaws in the skins which tell us about the parchment-making process and as well as historical damage to the sheets. As I progressed my work on this roll it became easy to see the effect of years of environmental damage, such as light, dust and handling have damaged the outer edges of the sheet. All things considered though, the document roll is looking remarkable well, especially when you think about all that it has been through and that the certificates were written 352 years ago.

How long has this all taken?

The survey of the material recovered after the PROI fire in 1922 was carried out in 2017 and a short cleaning project for some of the material followed in 2018. I started the sheet-by-sheet flattening of the roll in September 2019 and I was aiming to have it completed before Easter 2020. Sheet- by- sheet flattening began in September 2019 and progressed at a steady pace, and the work was completed in early June 2020.

Zoë Reid: A biographical note

I am the senior conservator in the National Archives of Ireland, where I have worked since 2002. I specialise in the conservation of historic documents. My work can range from assessing the needs and treating a single manuscript to developing treatment options and workflow programmes for large collections of many thousands of archival records. Safeguarding the long-term preservation of the national collection and ensuring safe public access to the archives are principal goals. I am also a specialist in collection care and disaster management and collections recovery.

There are so many amazing things about Beyond 2022 and the conservation work that it is allowing me to do, it really does feel like once in a lifetime project! I am getting the chance to develop and refine conservation techniques on documents that have waited for nearly 100 years to be cleaned and conserved.

The project has given me the opportunity to collaborate with historians to understand more about the context of the documents that I am working on, and I have to say I love their enthusiasm. I am also getting the excuse to engage with heritage scientists to explore the documents in more depth, there is so much we can learn by using scientific analysis, to enhance our understanding of what we can see and also what we cannot see. It is also a pleasure to be able to share the results of all this hard work with researchers, other conservators, and the public.

As part of the conservation work, I am getting the opportunity to look at documents in detail, especially some of the older parchment documents. I literally get to hold history in my hands! At the same time, I am devising and refining techniques for working on the vast quantity of paper documents that there are. I am researching and drafting practical solutions to repair and strengthen the paper. A surprising amount of paper survived, most of it is brittle as a result of the heat of the fire, which essentially dried out the paper. As a result, the paper documents break and crumble easily. I will be focusing sometime over the next few months to work on these scorched paper documents.

One aspect about this project that I am finding of interest as well is learning more about the salvage process that happened during the aftermath of the destruction of the PROI. I am interested in trying to piece together the story of who went into the destroyed building to go through the rubble.

I know from official papers that there were rooms used in the Record Office to sort through material and I can tell from the neat brown paper parcels, that they had the space and time to identify the burnt and charred documents. One report mentions them cleaning the building debris off the archives. I also have learnt that they worked on extracting documents from the rubble for nearly a year and completed the work on the 8th June 1923.

Through small snippets of information, I am beginning to piece together an idea of how they worked to leave behind the legacy of the ‘Salvaged Parcels’. I am so grateful they did.