Great Parchment Book Project

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The Great Parchment Book of the Honourable The Irish Society is a major survey, compiled in 1639 by a Commission instituted by Charles I, of all the estates in Derry, Northern Ireland, managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the London livery companies. Damaged in a fire at London’s Guildhall in 1786, it has been unavailable to researchers for over 200 years (Moody; Curl). The damaged manuscript has however remained part of the City of London’s collections held at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). As part of the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the building of Derry’s city walls in 1613, it was decided to attempt to make the document available as a central point of the planned exhibition. The book represents an important source for the City’s role in the colonization and administration of Ulster and, given the relative paucity of archival records for early modern Ireland, the manuscript should also reveal key data about landholding and population in 17th-century Ulster.

This ambitious project has attracted support from several funders, including the UK’s National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, the Marc Fitch Fund, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a number of London livery companies and the Irish Society itself. University College London (UCL), Derry Heritage and Museums Service (DHMS), and LMA have also provided funds and staff time.

Physical Description and Conservation Issues

The manuscript consists of 165 separate parchment membranes, all damaged in the fire. Uneven shrinkage and distortion has rendered much of the text illegible.

Traditional conservation alone would not produce sufficient results to make the manuscript accessible or suitable for exhibition, the parchment being too shriveled to be returned to a readable state. Much of the text is visible but distorted; following discussions with conservation and imaging experts, it was decided to flatten the parchment sheets as far as possible, and to use multi-modal digital imaging to gain legibility and enable digital access.

The Project

A partnership with the Department of Computer Science and the Centre for Digital Humanities at UCL established a four-year EngD in the Virtual Environments, Imaging and Visualization programme in September 2010 (jointly funded by the EPSRC and LMA) with the intention of developing software that would enable the manipulation (including virtual stretching and alignment) of digital images of the book rather than the object itself. The aim was to make the distorted text legible, and ideally to reconstitute the manuscript digitally.

Conservation work on the membranes encompassed cleaning, humidification, and tension drying, using magnets placed on top of the parchment above a metal sheet to hold creases open during the drying process. This opened out areas of parchment where the camera could not reach the text (De Stefani).

The practical conservation of the membranes was the essential first step, followed by the imaging work being carried out by UCL, where a set of typically 50-60 22MP images is captured for each page and used to generate a 3D model containing 100-170MP, which allows viewing at archival resolution (Pal et al., 3D Reconstruction). These models can be flattened and browsed virtually, allowing the contents of the book to be accessed more easily and without further handling the document (Pal et al., Interactive Exploration; Pal et al., Interactive Restoration). A readable and exploitable version of the text has also been prepared, comprising a searchable transcription and glossary of the manuscript. This element of the project received a grant from the Marc Fitch Fund towards the employment of a palaeographer who also encoded appropriate terms using TEI to capture structural and semantic information about the texts enabling comprehensive searching of the document.

The transcript and images of the document have been published online. The project worked with web-designers Headscape to develop a website to enable sophisticated online presentation and searching of the document contents.

From 2013, both DHMS and LMA plan to use the document in their interpretation and outreach programmes, developing resources for schools and colleges based on the information it contains; there is also considerable interest from academics (Stewart 2013a; Stewart 2013b). Our work on the computational approach to model, stretch, and read the damaged parchment will be applicable to similarly damaged material as we believe we are developing best practice computational approaches to digitizing highly distorted, fire-damaged, historical documents.


The digital imaging and transcription will provide a lasting resource for historians researching the Plantation of Ulster in local, national and international contexts. The progress of the project is being recorded on a blog embedded in the website. (The Great Parchment Book).

This poster was originally presented at DH2013 on July 17, 2013.


Curl, J. S. The Honourable the Irish Society and the Plantation of Ulster, 1608-2000: The City of London and the Colonisation of County Londonderry in the Province of Ulster in Ireland: A History and Critique. Chichester, West Sussex: Phillimore, 2000.

De Stefani, C. “Conservation of the Great Parchment Book” (Paper presented at the ARA Annual Conference, Brighton, August 29-31, 2012).

D. Stefani, C. “Great Parchment Book Project” (Paper presented at Opposites Attract: Science and Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, March 21, 2014.)

London Metropolitan Archives, The Great Parchment Book: Conserving, Digitally Reconstructing, Transcribing, and Publishing the Manuscript Known as the Great Parchment Book. Accessed 15 November 2013.

Moody, T. W. The Londonderry Plantation, 1609-41: the City of London and the Plantation in Ulster. Belfast: W. Mullan and Son, 1939.

Pal, K., M. Terras, and T. Weyrich. “3D Reconstruction for Damaged Documents: Imaging of The Great Parchment Book.” Proceedings of 2nd Intl. Workshop on Historical Document Imaging and Processing, Washington DC, August 24, 2013.

Pal K., M. Terras, and T. Weyrich. “Interactive Exploration and Flattening of Deformed Historical Documents.” Computer Graphics Forum (Proc. Eurographics) 33 (2013): 327–334.

Pal K., D. Panozzo, C. Schüller, O. Sorkine-Hornung, and T. Weyrich, “Content-Aware Surface Parameterizaation for Interactive Restoration of Historical Document” Computer Graphics Forum (Proc. Eurographics) 33(2), 2013.

Pal K., D. Panozzo, C. Schüller, O. Sorkine-Hornung, and T. Weyrich. “Interactive Restoration of Historical Documents.” Conditionally accepted to Computer Graphics Forum (Proc. Eurographics) 34(2014).

Smith, Philllipa, “The Great Parchment Book Project,” ARC Magazine, 294(February), 2014.

Smith, Phillipa, “The Great Parchment Book Project” (Paper Presented at London Metropolitan Archives International Council on Archives, 2014) URL: Accessed 19 March, 2013.

Stewart, P.”The Great Parchment Book.” (Paper Presented at Plantation Families: People, Records and Resources, A Family and Local History Event on the Plantation of Ulster, Belfast, September 27, 2013).

Stewart, P. “The Great Parchment Book.” (Paper Presented at Plantation Families: People, Records and Resources, A Family and Local History Event on the Plantation of Ulster, Londonderry, September 28, 2013).


Plantation: Process, People, Perspectives. Derry Guildhall, June 10 2013-2015.

About Nicola Avery, Alberto Campagnolo, Caroline De Stefani, Kazim Pal, Matthew Payne, Philippa Smith, Rachael Smither, Ann Stewart, Emma Stewart, Patricia Stewart, Melissa Terras, Laurence Ward, Tim Weyrich, and Liz Yamada

Nicola Avery is a Principal Archivist at London Metropolitan Archives with responsibility for Archive Systems. She has worked as a local government archivist in London for more than twenty years and specializes in electronic cataloguing and data standards. She was editor of the London Journal from 2004 to 2014 and her other professional commitments have included Membership Secretary of Archives for London.

Alberto Campagnolo graduated from the European School for Conservators-Restorers of Book Materials in Spoleto, Italy in 2001. He has then worked as book and paper conservator in various institutions, including National Museum Wales Cardiff, Palace Green Library Durham, Imperial War Museum London, Guildhall Library London, and the London Metropolitan Archives. Since October 2013 he is working as book conservator at the Vatican Library. In 2006 he graduated from Ca’ Foscari University Venice, Italy in Cultural Heritage Conservation. In 2009 he gained an MA in Digital Culture and Technology at King’s College London. Since October 2010 he is researching for his PhD at the Ligatus Research Centre of the University of the Arts London.

Caroline De Stefani graduated from the European Conservation School in Spoleto in 2001. She was a researcher at the University in Udine and a consultant for public libraries in Italy until 2006 when she joined the British Library as a conservator. She completed her PhD in 2007 in book conservation. From 2008 until 2012 she was a paper and book conservation consultant for the Cultural heritage Board of The Veneto region in Italy. From 2011 Caroline is the conservation studio manager at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Kazim Pal is a final year EngD student in the Computer Science department at University College London under the supervision of Tim Weyrich and Melissa Terras. His research deals with using computer graphics and computer vision techniques to perform digital restoration of damaged manuscripts. He previously graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2008 with an MA in Computer Science, and from UCL in 2010 with an MSc in Computer Graphics, Vision, and Imaging.

Matthew Payne is Keeper of the Muniments at Westminster Abbey. He was formerly a Senior Archivist at London Metropolitan Archives, where, among other things, he instigated the Great Parchment Book project. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and has published widely on a range of subjects.

Philippa Smith is Principal Archivist (Collections and Systems Management) at London Metropolitan Archives responsible for the Collections and Conservation teams; she edits the LMA newsletter. Philippa has over 30 years’ experience as an archivist mostly with local authorities, but has also been involved in the business archives sector. Amongst other professional commitments, she is currently a member of the Archives Accreditation Committee, and lectures occasionally at UCL.

Rachael Smither is a freelance paper conservator specialising in the field of archive and library conservation and preservation. She completed a Masters in paper conservation in 2007 at the University of the Arts London, and since then has worked for London Metropolitan Archives, Senate House Library, Tate, the Dr Williams's Library and the Huguenot Library carrying out practical conservation work, survey work and giving collection care advice. More information can be found on her website:

Ann Stewart is Head of Paper, Paintings, Frame and Sculpture Conservation at National Museums Liverpool. She was Conservation Manager at London Metropolitan Archives when the Great Parchment Book project was initiated. Previous posts include Head of Conservation at Guildhall Library and Conservation workshop manager at National Library of Scotland.

Emma Stewart has over 30 years’ experience as a professional archivist, predominantly in local government but also in the academic and business sectors. She is Head of Development at London Metropolitan Archives, which has a wide brief encompassing external fundraising and the development of partnership working across all areas of the service.

Patricia Stewart received the PhD in Mediaeval History from the University of St Andrews in 2012, after completing the MA in Medieval Studies at UCL in 2006 and the MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge in 2005. Her research interests include the use of digital tools in manuscript studies and text editing, as well as medieval science, magic, and religion. Following the completion of the Great Parchment Book Project, she is currently revising her doctoral thesis into an edition of the Medieval Latin bestiary.

Melissa Terras is Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and Professor of Digital Humanities in UCL's Department of Information Studies. With a background in Classical Art History, English Literature, and Computing Science, her doctorate (University of Oxford) examined how to use advanced information engineering technologies to interpret and read Roman texts. Publications include "Image to Interpretation: Intelligent Systems to Aid Historians in the Reading of the Vindolanda Texts" (2006, Oxford University Press) and "Digital Images for the Information Professional" (2008, Ashgate). She is currently serving on the Board of Curators of the University of Oxford Libraries. Her research focuses on the use of computational techniques to enable research in the arts and humanities that would otherwise be impossible. You can generally find her on twitter @melissaterras.

Laurence Ward is Principal Archivist (Graphic and Digital Collections) at London Metropolitan Archives responsible for the Graphic Collections, Imaging and Media and City Records teams. He manages exhibitions and co-ordinates the majority of LMA’s digital agenda, from preservation to access. Further professional commitments include the steering group of London’s Screen Archives (the regional archive film network) and the International Council on Archives.

Tim Weyrich is a Reader (Associate Professor) in the Virtual Environments and Computer Graphics group in the Department of Computer Science, University College London, and co-founder and Deputy Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. Prior to coming to UCL, Tim was a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow of Princeton University, working in the Princeton Computer Graphics Group, a post he took after having received his PhD from ETH Zurich, Switzerland, in 2006. Tim Weyrich's research interests are appearance modelling and fabrication, point-based graphics, 3D reconstruction, cultural heritage analysis and digital humanities.

Liz Yamada has worked as paper conservator for archives, museums and libraries in the public and private sectors for 18 years. She worked at London Metropolitan Archives for 11 years with a strong emphasis on collection surveys and is currently Conservation Assistant at Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge.