Boards: Preparation for Sewing

In preparation for sewing, a characteristic arrangement of tunnels is pierced along the spine edge of the board. Each set of holes corresponds to a sewing station on the text block and is coupled with a set of holes on the opposite board. The holes may be marked out on the boards first and then transferred to the quires or vice versa, depending on the preference of the bookbinder. Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Notches carved into edge of the boards on MS Ethiopic 3, presumably used to indicate placement of sewing holes. Detail, right, taken under magnification.

The boards on this manuscript are in especially good condition. These notches, if once present, would likely be lost as the boards wear and become rounded at the edges through daily use.

Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University; Photo: Author
Fig. 1. Board notch for sewing holes. Courtesy of Sean Winslow

Each set of holes comprises four tunnels: two made perpendicular to the face of the board at intervals from the edge, and two made at an angle. This configuration appears to be standard regardless of whether every hole will be used or not. The angled holes, called śaragalā (ሠረገላ), bifurcate from the center of the edge of the board, one fork leading to the outer face and the other to the inner face, with each terminus aligning with the respective end of the face-to-face tunnel nearest to the spine edge of the board. Fig. 2. More often than not all the holes are part of the board attachment sewing, but in one particular variation, to be discussed in a later entry, the face-to-face hole closest to the spine edge is superfluous and yet it is pierced just the same.
Fig. 2. Cross-section diagram of the traditional arrangement of holes pierced though the board for attachment.

Diagram: Author
Fig. 2. Cross-section board tunnel diagram. Diagram: Author

Two variations on this pattern appear within the literature. A diagram depicted in an article by conservator William Bull shows the sewing thread looping through tunnels in the face of the board that do not pass completely through the board. Executing this sewing would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish, if not impossible, especially given the limited set of tools at the disposal of the Ethiopian scribe. I see no logical reason why a scribe would break with tradition on an otherwise conventionally produced manuscript in order to make the attachment of the boards more challenging with no additional benefit. What is more likely is a misapprehension of the tunnel structure of the boards given that they seem to have been still covered with leather on the outer faces, limiting visibility. Bull, “A 17th-century Ethiopic Bookbinding,” 45 Gary Frost’s diagram in the instructions accompanying an Ethiopian bookbinding model making kit produced by Iowa Book Lab shows a configuration of three holes, excluding the tunnel from the board edge to the inner face. This is a variation appears to be based on Frost's own structural theories rather than historical precedent. Frost, Wearable Ethiopian Journal with Mahdar, [3]; Frost, Correspondance, 6 April 2015

While preparing the sewing tunnels, each board is “held in one hand or the lap while the other [hand] pushes the awl through” in a back-and-forth drilling motion. Winslow, Correspondance, 16 October 2013 Fig. 3. Fekade indicates that, for this operation, the holes are initially pieced with a sharp awl that is heated—likely what Sergew refers to as a “glow awl”—and refined using a cold awl. Fekade, Ancient, 207 Sergew. Bookmaking, 24 However, if the wood is soft enough, this activity may be carried out using the same technique with an unheated awl. Winslow, Ethiopian, 213 The two holes that travel through the face of the board are pierced first [Fig. 4], followed by the angled holes. Once an initial set of holes has been pierced, it is confirmed that the thread and needle are able to pass through easily, and then the holes for the remaining stations are made. After this, the second board is prepared using the first as a guide. Fekade, Ancient, 207–208
Fig. 3. A scribe piercing holes for sewing into a board using an awl.

Winslow, The Craft of Ethiopian Scribal Production, Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology (2018, Forthcoming)
Fig. 3. Piercing Holes. Courtesy of Sean Winslow
Fig. 3. Detail of face-to-face holes pierced into board, before (or excluding) the carving of the channel between holes.

Winslow, The Craft of Ethiopian Scribal Production, Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology (2018, Forthcoming)
Fig. 4. Board holes. Courtesy of Sean Winslow

In order to recess the thread that will be exposed on the faces of the boards, after piercing is complete, channels are carved on the inner and outer faces of the boards, connecting the two face-to-face holes. The channels are made to a depth and width equal to the thread so that it will rest below the surface of the board. This practice is used to prevent premature wear of the thread from abrasion, which would result in potential detachment, and unattractive lumps in the case of a leather-covered volume. Fekade, Ancient, 208

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Boards: Shaping

Any detailed historical descriptions of the process which takes the wood from tree to finished book board have yet to be found, but a few accounts from 19th-century travelers in the region and a few modern sources offer us some insight, all pointing to the adze as the primary instrument used. Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Adze used in the production of parchment, very similar in size and construction to those used in woodwork.

Winslow, The Craft of Ethiopian Scribal Production, Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology (2018, Forthcoming)
Fig. 1. Adze. Courtesy of Sean Winslow

In 1837, Robert Curzon encountered a group of Ethiopian monks at the Syrian Monastery in the Natron Valley region of Egypt; from them he was able to ascertain some aspects of the production of manuscripts, observing “wooden boards, not sawn or planed, but chopped apparently out of a tree or a block of hard wood, a task of patience and difficulty.” Curzon, Visits to Monasteries, 102. Whether Curzon is basing this description on direct observation, conversation with scribes, or inference from examining manuscripts is not stated. Shortly thereafter, a report issued by the French scientific expedition lead through Ethiopia by Theophile Lefebvre in the 1840s, notes that “traditional carpenters would split trees with wedges and then very cleverly plane the pieces into boards with the aid of an adze.” Pankhurst, Old-time Handicrafts, 242 Furthermore, Sir Clements Markham, geographer for the British military expedition in Ethiopia of 1867–68, writes, "the doors and other woodwork are merely worked up with adzes, without the use of planes," and an account, published in 1900 by Augustus Wylde, reinforces the predominant use of the tool, adding that "the adze is the usual tool used for smoothing woodwork, and the carpenters of the country turn out sometimes most excellent work with this instrument." Markham, A History, 238 Wylde, Modern Abyssinia, 229 Although it is not explicitly stated as a practice directly related to book boards, it is not too great of a leap to conclude that a simple method such as this—employing minimal tools and techniques common to woodworkers throughout history—would have been used in the shaping of the raw material. Furthermore, a number of modern sources attest to the use of an adze in shaping book boards. Cockerell, "Ethiopian," 7; Szirmai, Archaeology, 48; Winslow, Correspondence, 16 Oct 2013 A focused study on the end grain structure of wood found on manuscripts with exposed boards of various sizes could yield important clues to determining if there was any historical preference as to the manner with which the pieces of wood were initially split from the felled tree.
Fig. 2. Weiner Codex 22 (EMIP 00113). Front board, interior. Large scoop mark from an adze is visible at the bottom-left corner.

See Fig. 2 of the entry "Boards: Introduction" for another example of adze marks on a board.

Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director
Fig. 2. Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director

According to Fekade, for the best quality boards, tradition indicates that the wood is felled and bucked then set aside to cure for a year or longer. To expedite the process, freshly cut wood may be dried by a fire, or stripped of its bark and buried in cow dung for two or three weeks—which is purported to aid in the prevention of cracking and decay—and then dried by a fire. This dried wood will then be split and shaped to the desired size. Fekade, Ancient, 203–204 Historically, if a scribe was unable to find a preferred wood, another type might be treated to increase its decay resistance by soaking it in the milk, urine, or blood of a cow for a full day and then drying it in the shade. Ibid, 205 While the chemical benefit of this process is not fully apparent, there is precedent for using dung and urine as a preservative with wood. Joseph Nagyvary, a biochemist researching historical violin making, learned from violin maker Amos Segesser that “some Swiss woodworkers soaked their lumber in solutions containing bovine dung and urine." Nagyvary, Correspondence, 24 May 2015 Lemonick, "Stradivari’s," 84 Additionally, he describes a traditional method used to produce crack-resistant wood in which wood was placed in the high-humidity, low-ammonia environment of “a smokehouse over a smoldering dung pit.” Nagyvary, "Chemistry, 26 May 2015

Once the wood has been split, the boards are shaped using an axe or adze, and a sharp knife is applied to further level the surfaces of the board. Fig. 2. Segrew, Bookmaking, 24; Fekade, Ancient, 204; Winslow, Correspondence, 9 October 2013 The board may also be soaked in water for several days to ease the work. Afterwards, an adze is used to cut the boards to the size of the manuscript. While not mentioned in any of the literature, examples of boards with lines etched along the trimmed edges, likely made with an awl or knife, have been found that may indicate a practice of demarcating the dimensions of the manuscript on the wood prior to trimming. Figs. 3 & 4. Sanding may then be performed by rubbing a small amount of sand against the surface with the palm of the hand. Winslow, Correspondence, 9 October 2013. Winslow notes that the callused hands of the scribe likely protect them from injury during this process. Many boards will receive a coating of beeswax on both sides and be polished on the outside with a piece of cloth. Segrew, Bookmaking, 24 However, this would only be done in cases where the boards are to be left uncovered as the wax would certainly cause problems with the adhesion of leather. If the book will be covered in leather, great care is taken to make sure the outer face is very smooth, ensuring even adhesion of the leather and provide a level surface for decorative tooling. Fekade, Ancient, 204 Once these steps have been completed, the boards are pierced, along with the endleaves and quires, in preparation for sewing.
Fig. 3. MS Ethiopic 3. Detail of front board, interior. Perpendicular lines etched into the wood, closely aligned with cut edges of the board, perhaps used to delineate desired dimensions during shaping.

Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University; Photo: Author
Fig. 3. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University; Photo: Author
Fig. 4. Weiner Codex 22 (EMIP 00113). Detail of back board, interior. Line etched into the wood along cut edge.

Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director
Fig. 4. Courtesy of Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project (Portland, Oregon), Steve Delamarter, director

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Boards: Types of Wood

There are a total of thirteen types of wood used in the binding of manuscripts cited across the available literature. Table 1. Table 1. Wood Types
Amharic (romanized with Amharic characters in parentheses), scientific, and common names of types of wood used in Ethiopian bookbinding as cited in available literature
Unless otherwise noted, the American Library Association-Library of Congress (ALA-LC) Amharic romanization table has been used to transliterate all native terminology. “Amharic.” ALA-LC Romanization Tables; accessed on 12 February 2018.
Amharic Scientific Common
Bāḥr zāf (ባሕር፡ዛፍ) Eucalyptus globulus Tasmanian Blue Gum
Bisānā (ቡሳና) Croton macrostachyus Broad-leaf Croton
Gatam (ገተም) Heptapleurum abyssinicum
Grār (ግራር) Acacia spp. Acacia
Hayā (አሀያ) Salix subserrata Willow
Koso (ኮሶ) Hagenia abyssinica East African Rosewood
Lol (ሎል) Ekebergia capensis Cape Ash, Dogplum
Qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል) Euphorbia spp.,
possibly Euphorbia candelabrum
Ṭed (ጥድ) Juniperus procera African Pencil Cedar
Wānzā (ዋንዛ) Cordia africana
Warka (ዋርካ) Ficus vasta Fig
Wayrā (ወይራ) Olea africana Wild Olive
Zegba (ዝግባ) Podocarpus gracilior East African Yellowwood

Fig. 1. Wayrā (ወይራ, Olea africana, “Wild Olive”)

Fig. 1. Wayrā (ወይራ, Olea africana,
Fig. 2. Wānzā (ዋንዛ, Cordia africana)

Photo: Sue Christian Bell
Fig. 2. Wānzā (ዋንዛ, Cordia africana)
Fig. 3. Koso (ኮሶ, Hagenia abyssinica, East African Rosewood)

Photo: Brandt Maxwell
Fig. 3. Koso (ኮሶ, Hagenia abyssinica, East African Rosewood)

The oldest reference to a specific type of wood comes from 1859: Antoine d’Abbadie notes in the preface to the catalog of his Ethiopian manuscripts that many of them are bound between thick boards of wānzā (ዋንዛ, Cordia africana) and, to a lesser extent, wayrā (ወይራ, Olea africana, “wild olive”). d’Abbadie, Catalogue, xii. It would be relatively easy to differentiate between these two woods as wayrā is a much harder and heavier wood. Kane also lists Olea africana under the definition for 'eṡa zayt (ዕፀ፡ዘይት), “wild olive tree.” Kane, Amharic–English II, 1672. Figs. 1 & 2. Over a century later, in an account of his time in Ethiopia, Sydney Cockerell reiterates the use of both of these woods. Cockerell, “Ethiopian,” 6. He does this somewhat in error, writing that “[w]ooden boards are used which generally seem to be made from a wood called wanza, which I understand is olive.” Sergew Hable Selassie, shortly after, adds cedar, known locally as ṭed (ጥድ, Juniperus procera, “African pencil cedar”). Sergew, Bookmaking, 24. He also lists wäyra and wanza. This is the work to which J.A. Szirmai refers when listing woods in Archaeology, 48. Fekade Selassie Tefera lists gatam (ገተም, Heptapleurum abyssinicum), koso (ኮሶ, Hagenia abyssinica,) [Fig. 3], warka (ዋርካ, Ficus vasta, “fig”), grār (ግራር, Acacia spp.), and bisānā (ቢሳና, Croton macrostachyus)—in addition to wanza, but notably excluding wayrā, a wood that is often indicated as “preferred” in texts. He does cite the use of cedar, but not in an entirely favorable light, describing it as becoming “delicate and brittle when shaped.” Fekade, Ancient, 203. Kane also lists Brayera anthelmintica Kunth. alongside Hagenia abyssinica in the definition for koso. Kane, Amharic–English II, 1403. John Mellors and Anne Parsons round out the list of known woods, adding bāḥr zāf (ባሕር፡ዛፍ, Eucalyptus globulus), hayā (አሀያ, Salix subserrata, “willow”), lol (ሎል, Ekebergia capensis), zegba (ዝግባ, Podocarpus gracilior), and “cactus”—mislabeling qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል, Euphorbia spp., possibly Euphorbia candelabrum) [Fig. 4]. Mellors and Parsons, “Manuscript,” 194. They also list wayrā, grār, and ṭed. Richard Pankhurst states that the Ethiopians refer to their Eucalyptus trees as bāḥr zāf, or “tree from across the sea,” in Pankhurst, “Deforestation,” 127. Bāḥr zāf (ባሕር፡ዛፍ) is identified as Eucalyptus globulus in Kane, Amharic–English II, 1682. It should also be noted that Eucalyptus is not indigenous to Ethiopia. The fast-growing tree was introduced to the region around the turn of the 20th century, during the reign of Menilek II, in order to combat rampant deforestation. Pankhurst, "Deforestation," 127. Salix subserrata appears under the definition for 'ahayā (አሀያ) in Kane, Amharic–English II, 1093. Lol (ሎል) Ekebergia capensis. Kane, Amharic–English I, 41. Kane lists the alternate spelling of zagbā (ዘግባ) alongside a definition of “Podocarpus gracilior, a large tree resembling the cedar.” Kane, Amharic–English II, 1678. See Winslow, Ethiopian, 209 (f.n. 25) for clarification on the mislabeling of Euphorbia via John Mellors.

Although wayrā, the African wild olive tree, is often cited as a “preferred” or, at least, common wood for bookbinding, it would seem that this is only accurate in a historical sense. Sergew,. Bookmaking, 24; Mellors and Parsons, Ethiopian, 16 Richard Pankhurst, in his essay on deforestation in Ethiopia, describes massive losses of olive trees in the Addis Ababa region by the middle of the 19th century. Pankhurst, “Deforestation,” 125. Sean Winslow echoes this, explaining that “olive wood has become scarcer, and … wanza … has become favoured for use, as it is light and strong.” Winslow, Ethiopian, 207.

The word “preferred” is used throughout the literature when describing suitable woods for making boards. The most common qualities referenced in regard to these woods are: decay-, pest-, and crack-resistance. Woods which hold up well against decay and do not attract pests may be specifically sought out because of a history of burying precious manuscripts underground or hiding them in caves during times of unrest. Sergew, Bookmaking, 24; Winslow is skeptical of this, writing, "there are enough practical reasons to choose resistant woods on their own merits" and that the tradition of burying manuscripts might be a "post-facto justification." Winslow, Correspondance, 23 February 2018. Kane’s definition for wānzā (ዋንዛ) states that “the wood of which being worm-resistant is used in making planks and doors.” Kane, Amharic–English II, 1544. Ethiopia’s climate, which can experience significant fluctuations in humidity throughout the year and high levels of precipitation during the rainy season, would undoubtedly be an important factor guiding the selection of wood, especially given that the storage conditions in most churches are far from the climate-controlled facilities found in many modern repositories. According to Sergew, “although wood curve is known in Ethiopia, it does not seem to have concerned the men who made the boards.” Sergew, Bookmaking, 24. By "curve" he likely means "warping." Jan Tomaszewski and Michael Gervers cite “cracking and warping being characteristic features of the wood used for the purpose in the region.” Tomaszewski and Gervers, “Technological Aspects,” 101. Another consideration is the weight of the wood. Fekade notes that, historically, some scribes without access to suitable woods would use other types indiscriminately, resulting in books with covers which are disproportionately heavy compared to the text block, sometimes weighing as much or more than the combined quires. This practice, he adds, could lead to distressed parchment, vulnerable to tears and flaking of the inscription it carries. In these cases, covering the boards with leather only adds additional weight, further contributing to their damaging effects. Fekade, Ancient, 203

When discussing the woods used in these bindings, it is important to consider the impact of Ethiopia’s long history of deforestation dating back to the middle ages. Centuries of wastefully cutting and burning of woodland—for firewood and charcoal; clearing of pasture lands; and flushing out of rebels, wild animals, and pests—with little regard toward replacement of what was removed, left enormous areas entirely treeless. Pankhurst, “Deforestation,” 122–123 Contemporary perspective, of a sort, can be found in an 1844 account in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine which describes English engineers demonstrating their woodworking techniques to Ethiopians “who waste a tree on every plank.” Blackwood’s, “Ethiopia,” 288 As a consequence of these practices, bookbinders were forced to become more resourceful when finding materials for protecting their manuscripts. Sydney Cockerell is the first to mention the product of this necessary expanded resourcefulness, describing book covers made of recycled wood from packing crates “still labelled Shell Petrol and … Cognac.” Cockerell, “Ethiopian,” 6–7 Mellors and Parsons write that all woods once commonly used for bookbinding “are now very difficult to obtain so many books have to be bound in boards purchased from carpenters.” They mention the use of plywood, noting that its thinness requires the elimination of the holes traditionally pierced through the edge of the board, which is certainly detrimental to the longevity of the thread due to increased abrasion as it rubs against the sharp edges of the boards. Mellors and Parsons, "Manuscript," 195 Dovetailing with this, Steve Delamarter and Sarah Vulgan note the twentieth-century arrival of “sawed boards and planed boards and even plywood and particle board.” Delamarter and Vulgan, "Introduction," 20

Fig. 4. Qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል, Euphorbia candelabrum, Cactus)

Photo: Stock
Qwelqwāl (ቍልቋል, Euphorbia candelabrum,

It is unclear how much of the identification of these woods is based on tradition, however outdated, and anecdotal accounts provided by scribes. I am not sure if there is a non-invasive method of positively identifying the woods used on any particular manuscript. Obtaining samples of each of the species native to Ethiopia would be an important first step in developing a method for identifying those used on manuscripts. If anybody knows how acquiring these samples may be possible, please feel free to reach out.

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