Condition and Making Treatment Decisions
More than two hundred years later, conservators in
the no longer young nation examined the penmen's work
to determine its condition. While the text on the whole
mostly remained legible, under the microscope they could
see where small flakes of ink had disappeared and other
lifted flakes were tenuously attached. The once flat
parchment, responding to changes in moisture and humidity,
now undulated in many cockles or "hills and valleys."
In the past, insects had nibbled the parchment, leaving
lacey vulnerable edges on some sheets.
Conservators selected and proposed treatments to address
these condition problems in each parchment document.
The approach to treatment was conservative, designed
to stabilize the parchment and preserve the legibility
of the text. These were not documents on which to try
a brand-new approach or apply new chemicals that had
not stood the test of time. Nor was it appropriate to
undertake any alteration of the significant text. Where
ink flakes had been lost, it was not ethical to alter
the content of a single line or change a single punctuation
mark. The important task was to secure and preserve
the ink that remained and thus the content of the text.
Some cuts or puncture holes were present that might
look like damage but were in fact evidence of historical
techniques used on the documents. Six one-inch vertical
slits along the top edges of each page of the Constitution
were cut with a sharp knife to allow the lacing of a
ribbon to bind the leaves together. While they had been
repaired in the past, the slits showed how the document
leaves originally may have been secured together, so
the conservators proposed removing the old repairs and
leaving the slits open after treatment. Similarly, extremely
small puncture holes deliberately made with a tool near
the slits were also left in their original state and
On the Declaration, close examination revealed small
Y-shaped puncture holes regularly spaced along most
edges. These punctures suggest that at some time in
the past the parchment was stretched in a string mount
to keep it flat and taut. Several edges of most of the
parchments showed varying amounts of accumulated grime.
This grime was an excellent indicator that the dirty
edges were original. The lack of heavy grime on other
edges suggested that trimming had occurred in a more
recent era. Some edges, ragged and lacking grime, also
indicated recent trimming with a less than sharp tool.
None of this trimming, however, came near or endangered
the text. All of these features would be noted in the
permanent record of condition examination.
examines the ink on Page One of the Constitution,
letter by letter. In the treatment of this document,
the most important step was to ensure that the original
iron gall ink remained well adhered.
at left shows loss in the edge of the parchment
near the word "America" on the Declaration
of Independence. At right is the same area after
conservation treatment. The loss was filled with
a small piece of Japanese paper that was toned and
burnished to resemble the parchment. With the loss
filled, the edge of the Declaration is stable and
The first important steps were to conduct
a condition assessment and write a detailed condition
report on all that could be seen in examining the document.
A treatment proposal was then written, outlining the
exact procedures proposed to address the condition problems.
Of the three documents to be treated, only one, the
Declaration, had detailed records of previous treatment
undertaken in 1942.
One of the legacies of the current project would be
to leave detailed reports on condition and treatment,
extensive photographic documentation, and results of
scientific study and analysis. Therefore, the treatment
proposal also included methods for taking microscopic
surface samples of parchment to be used in scientific
studies of the condition of the parchment. In addition,
it was proposed to remove minute samples of ink from
areas of spatter or smears that were not part of the
text itself to verify the composition of the ink present.
Because access to the documents would be limited after
they were resealed in the new encasements, it was important
to answer questions that remained from the 1942 treatment
and to anticipate questions that future caretakers might
have about these documents. After the treatment proposal
was signed, which conveyed approval and written permission
to proceed, treatment commenced.
The conservators' first step was to stabilize any
lifting or insecure ink flakes with parchment size,
a traditional gelatin adhesive made by cooking parchment
scraps. Looking through a binocular microscope, the
conservator guided the fine tip of a 0000 watercolor
brush to apply droplets of size no larger than the period
at the end of this sentence. The adhesive flowed under
the ink flake, causing it to move back into its original
position. This step was the most time consuming part
of the treatment, as each line of text was examined,
letter by letter, line by line, looking for flakes of
ink that appeared insecurely attached.
Once the conservators had examined and secured the
ink on the front, they could finally turn the parchment
over to see the reverse. While the fronts of the documents
had been visible in the glass encasements, layers of
paper behind each parchment obscured the backs. Now
the backs of the documents were visible. While there
were no great surprises, random ink splotches and partial
grayish hand and fingerprints were found on the backs
of the Constitution pages.
The only text revealed was on the reverse of the Declaration,
which has "The Original Declaration of Independence
July 4th 1776." inscribed parallel to its bottom
edge. This inscription, known from photographs from
the 1940s, probably served as a label that could be
read when the document was rolled up for storage.
Proceeding with treatment, the conservators gently
cleaned dirt and grime in bare areas of parchment—taking
special care to avoid disturbing original rule lines
and other intentional marks. They removed old adhesive
on the parchment that distorted the parchment sheet
and made it resist lying flat.
The parchment was sandwiched between layers of a synthetic
material that permitted the introduction of humidity
to relax the skin fully. Then it was was dried under
tension to return it to a flat plane. In this process
of flattening, the challenge was to make the parchment
limp without softening the ink so that it could be realigned
to remove the distortions of many decades. The Declaration
of Independence was the only parchment that was not
humidified and flattened in this way. Compared to the
other Charters documents, it had been more damaged by
frequent handling and exhibition, and scientific study
of the parchment confirmed that it was vulnerable to
moisture. As a result, less treatment was carried out
on the Declaration. Since it had received extensive
treatment in 1942, it was already relatively flat, and
its ink did not show vulnerable flakes that needed consolidation.
Where parchment edges had been lost to insects or physical
damage, unobtrusive repairs were made with a handmade
Japanese paper that closely matched the original parchment
in color and thickness, with parchment size as adhesive.
These repairs would protect the vulnerable edges from
snagging or curling and suggest the original rectangular
shape of the documents.