Written on skin: The New Brunswick archives' parchment collection

·2 min read
Documents in a collection of 19th century land grants at the New Brunswick Archives are written on animal skins, which makes mending them a different process than dealing with regular paper.  (Google Maps - image credit)
Documents in a collection of 19th century land grants at the New Brunswick Archives are written on animal skins, which makes mending them a different process than dealing with regular paper. (Google Maps - image credit)

When student archivist Claire Hunter began painstakingly restoring old land grants from the 19th century, she had no idea the writing material wasn't paper.

She thought she was dealing with standard paper documents, but a co-worker started caling the parchments "chew toys," and that's when Hunter realized what she was working on.

"Back in the day for land grants, they'd actually stretch cattle and sheep and pigskin, it's actually skin from animals," said Hunter, who works at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.

"You can see the follicles on the paper depending on if it's really, really dry … I never knew that it was stretched animal skin."

Parchment paper, not to be confused with the wax paper–like product used in baking, has been used as writing material for over 2,000 years.

Hunter said there are lots of regular paper land grants at the archives, but these specimens are affixed with stamps and seem "fancier" than the rest.

"They're very official," said Hunter.

"When you find out the material, it definitely seems more important as well, than compared to just using paper."

She says there are some special steps archivists have to take when preserving these documents.

"The material is kind of sticky," said Hunter.

"So when you're mending it and flattening it, you have to be very careful because it can stick to each other because of this type of material. And you don't want to mend it in a way that will be irreversible because it is sticky."

And for Hunter, a recent graduate from a fine arts program, the chance to work with the documents is a challenge.

"To switch up and have to learn a new material is so exciting, and it is very interesting," she said.

Hunter said parchment can be both easier and more difficult to preserve.

"The material is definitely going to last longer because paper can easily be eaten away," said Hunter.

"But the only thing too, with this being skin, bugs are attracted to it more … So if you don't house it properly, which we do here, it can be destroyed more easily."