A Study in Islamic Paper

In the first of a new series showcasing research from the SEAH-CDT in Heritage Science, Hend Mahgoub and co-authors look into the material properties of paper from the Islamic world

Since its invention in China sometime in the 2nd Century A.D., paper has been a hugely influential material in the history and cultures of mankind. In our digital age, it is sometimes easy to forget that the transmission of information has in some ways been influenced a lot more by the material properties of paper than how many gigabytes we can fit onto a USB stick.

“For the first time, this paper reports a systematic study of material properties of Islamic paper, heritage that strongly appeals to me personally. For me, it was a great experience working with Lichtblau e.k. who part-funded my masters research in this complex project. I plan to take this further and validate the developed methodology at the Wellcome Library in London where one of the most extraordinary Islamic collections is housed. I hope to report on this in the near future.”


Hend Mahgoub

When analyzing and preserving our cultural heritage, the chemical properties of paper are naturally a big deal—just this year in Heritage Science we’ve seen a set of three papers on the development of models to predict how historic paper will degrade in museums, as well as a study into the chemical effects of particulate matter on paper. But, as researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage at University College London point out in a new study published this week, a significant gap in our knowledge exists when it comes to the properties of paper from the Islamic world.

To help rectify this, Hend Mahgoub and co-authors from the SEAHA-CDT (the ESPRC-funded Doctoral Training Centre for Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology) characterized a huge number of papers (228, spanning the 18th to the 20th century) from the ‘Islamic World’ (defined as the Islamic cultural realm in Arab, Persian and Turkic territories).

According to the authors, for a material as widely studied as paper, the gaps in our knowledge when it comes to this region are surprisingly large: how different is the paper from regions within this sphere? How many manuscripts in Islamic library collections are composed of paper actually created in the region, as opposed to paper brought in through trade? Are there even distinct enough differences in the material properties of paper from the Islamic world to distinguish it from other regions, e.g. European or Sino-Asian?

“We are excited to see the first paper published in Heritage Science from the Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology. This paper exemplifies the research that the students do within the Centre: collaborative, cross-disciplinary and focused on applied research questions that respond to real heritage science knowledge gaps.”


Matija Strlic

As might be expected, the authors found no single characteristic that could set a parchment apart as coming from the Islamic world. But by using a myriad of chemical analytical techniques they were able to develop four models to identify distinguishing characteristics of Islamic paper. With this non-destructive methodology, the authors suggest that collections of Islamic papers could be used to expand the data, and shed light on the story of paper-making practices in the Islamic world. The first author, Hend Mahgoub, tells us that future developments could include taking this approach to the Islamic collection at the Wellcome Library in London, so watch this space!

This paper is the first in a series showcasing excellent research from the SEAHA-CDT in the SpringerOpen journal Heritage Science. Further exciting articles will be published in this collection over the coming months, so stay tuned.

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