Butter Analyze It: Using Biocodicology to Illuminate the History of a Dunhuang Woodblock in the Royal Ontario Museum

Jessica Lockhart from the University of Toronto 

“The Book and the Silk Roads: Phase I” seeks to build and support an international network consisting of scholars, curators, conservators, and scientists exploring significant developments in writing technologies within a range of contexts, focusing particularly on examples of convergent evolution and on occasions of cultural interchange in the premodern world. In collaboration with Dr. Amanda Goodman (University of Toronto), one of our projects considers a case study undertaking biocodicological analysis of an oil-stained devotional leaf from Dunhuang, one of roughly sixteen surviving copies of a woodcut image of the boddhisatva Avalokiteśvara complete with an inscription bestowing blessings on the city for the annual Ghost Festival of the year 947. This devotional leaf is now part of the permanent East Asian collection in the Royal Ontario Museum, acquired by trade with the British Museum in 1913. Our ongoing study combines microscopic analysis, proteomic analysis, and multispectral imaging to delve into the evidence of use and storage during the 50 years in which the ROM leaf, like the other copies of this print, circulated in the Dunhuang community before being sealed in the Mogao cave, as well as its modern conservation history. Meanwhile, in applying eZooMS for the first time towards analysis of a suspected animal-based oil, this project experiments with a sustainable, scalable, and cost-effective alternative to conventional destructive biomolecular testing, one which may enable wider easy collaboration on research questions between scientists, historians, and conservators of heritage objects.


Jessica Lockhart

Jessica Lockhart is Research Associate/Project Manager of the Mellon-funded project, The Book and the Silk Roads, and a sessional instructor in global medieval literatures at the University of Toronto. She coordinates all research for the BSR’s collaborative projects, most recently on micro-CT of medieval manuscript structures, and on peptide mass fingerprinting of medieval book adhesives (in collaboration with Beasts2Craft).