‘Dude, where art thine quill?’

Working in Collection Care, we have a unique view of the documents that come through our studio. While the historical and societal value of the collection plays a key role in our decisionmaking, our job is to preserve documents to enable continued access to our collection, meaning that we are very interested in the materiality of our documents.

Often, our conservators work directly on a document, performing a range of treatments to stabilise and reduce the rates of deterioration that the documents undergo. This can include anything from repairing tears, researching a new treatment to consolidate pigments that have started to flake off, or rebinding a volume so that it can be safely handled.

However, when treating the documents we can sometimes find something special that changes our perspective. This is what happened on the day we found the quill.

You may have seen the Twitter thread or even read about the quill in the press, but here’s the full version of the story (with a few added conservation tidbits).

My colleague, Maurice, was cleaning E 380/4 part 1, a large bound volume from the Elizabethan age containing draft land leases, and called us over to take a look at something interesting he had found.

Placed delicately on an open page in the middle of the volume was a quill – a quill in such good condition I initially thought it was modern! Although we cannot date the quill or confirm if it is contemporary to the document, we do believe it has been in the volume for quite some time as it has left an indentation in the surrounding pages.

Keeping the quill in the closed volume for potentially hundreds of years has meant that moisture, pollutants, and sunlight (which can all accelerate the deterioration of materials) were unable to penetrate the volume, resulting in a very well preserved quill.

The quill found in record E 380/4 part 1

Once we had the opportunity to take pictures, Maurice got right to creating a temporary enclosure for the quill. It initially never crossed our minds to fully separate the quill from the document where it was found, but as the quill could be easily damaged or stolen a more suitable enclosure needed to be created.

The temporary enclosure created for the quill

Prior to enclosing the quill, the feather was generally cleaned using a soft brush to remove any surface dirt or dust. The quill was then encased in Melinex – an inert, acid-free polyester plastic. The properties of the Melinex are archival grade so they will not cause any chemical deterioration and the sleeve enables the quill to be safely handled and photographed.

You may also notice that the top left corner of the sleeve has been left open –  this is to ensure that there is adequate air exchange so a ‘microclimate’ does not form. A microclimate is where the climate inside the enclosure is different from the surrounding areas. In this case, if any moisture became trapped in the enclosure it could accelerate the deterioration of the quill, which we want to avoid. Having a good amount of air exchange between the outside climate and the enclosure will reduce this risk and create an equilibrium between the two environments.

Maurice also created a box for the sleeve, adding an extra layer of protection from hazards like ultraviolet radiation, pests, moisture in the air, greatly reducing the risk of damage when moving the quill around the archive.

Following this treatment, the quill can now be safely handled by readers and will be orderable with the document.

Reflecting on the find last month, I caught up with my colleague, Solange, who is the conservator that leads the conservation project where the quill was found.

How often do you find extra objects, like the quill, in documents?

Solange: I work with Maurice, on a project called “the invigilation room” – this project involves conserving documents so they no longer need to be seen in the invigilation room and can instead be seen in the general reading rooms.

Often, these documents need to be repaired so they can be safely handled, but sometimes they come to the studio because there are loose bits in the documents that can be lost or stolen. So you can imagine that this project is the place you’ll find a lot of interesting things!

Normally, the things are left there on purpose. While working on this project, I’ve found false teeth, coins, medals, loose photographs – but this is the first time we’ve found an accidentally left quill.

Why did we decide to keep the quill?

Solange: Well, we never throw anything away and this quill is part of the object’s history. We have bins but we don’t use them!

It [the quill] wasn’t attached in any way but we’re assuming it was part of the object because it has left such an impression on the opposite page – it must have been there for a very long time. Overall, it was a nice surprise to find in the document, and although it likely does not have historical significance, from a social historic point of view it is a very interesting feature that we don’t normally get to see alongside the collection.

While we are keeping the quill, we have removed it from the volume in order to best preserve and secure both objects. We’ll keep the quill with the document so when a reader orders the document they will also receive the quill, and we have highlighted where the quill was found in the volume with a note and images.

Are there any conservation issues associated with the quill?

Solange: While the enclosure we have created enables the safe handling of the quill, it will likely be a temporary solution, as Melinex can create a small electrostatic charge that can, over time, damage very fragile materials. We’ll probably look at creating a window box for long term storage.

The quill is an organic material made from a feather (keratin) so it is susceptible to pests, physical forces, environmental fluctuations, light, and pollutants. We’ll probably have to look at a deeper clean to remove the ingrained dirt and dust, then, as the feather is well preserved, good housing will help reduce the risk of the other hazards.

This story has really resonated with many of us – who hasn’t lost a pen?! What I really like about this story is that it reminds us that these records are living, breathing objects about people. As conservators, we spend so much time thinking about the materiality of the documents – it is nice to be reminded of the human element that these records hold.

29 comments

  1. Mrs. Jane Hussey says:

    How wonderful. I inherited a box of quills (being a calligrapher) made by the London Quill company but so many of them were damaged with small holes in them, they had to be thrown away. We still make quills today for writing on vellum. They are so flexible to write with.

  2. Paul says:

    Did you not consider a DNA sweep first?

  3. Elizabeth Glover Howard says:

    Were you able to examine the quill forensically ? did you find traces of ink ?? what sort of date was the quill and /or ink ?

  4. Chris Bushill says:

    As it was tagged Elizabeth 1 presume it was Elizabethan?

  5. Graham Simons says:

    Fascinating. It would only need a very small sample to be able to carbon-date the quill – have you considered this?

  6. susan pearce says:

    Hi
    The feather arrangement looks strange. Usually the fine feathers lay away from the thick (nib) end, these appear to be laying towards the nib.
    Or have they been brushed that way?

  7. Malcolm J Watkins says:

    This appears to be an uncut feather intended for use as a quill pen. The direction of the feathers suggests that it was abused before placement in the volume as they have been forced downwards. I would have thought C14 dating might be possible by sacrificing one or two of the feather fronds.

  8. Gordon Cox says:

    It seems to me that this would be a suitable subject for a small collaborative project between National Archives and one of our leading museums. I would like to know what species of bird the quill was from, where in the country did it come from, and what kind of ink was being used.

  9. Alan Gifford says:

    Have you determined what bird the quill came from?

  10. Peter Garwood says:

    When you cleaned the quill did you get an analysis of the debris that was removed for pollens, dust , smoke particles and DNA? All of which would add to the history of the environment the quill had been used in and might tell us some genetics of the user(s)?

  11. Louise Harrison says:

    Was the quill checked for fingerprints before it was cleaned? Would it be possible to date a fraction of it using carbon 14 dating techniques?

  12. Heather Wright says:

    Interesting to see a real old quill. I picked up some goose flight feathers recently and now know how they should look when I want to write with them! The top barbs of the feather seem to have been trimmed to lower the top weight I guess!

  13. Bobbie Carnegie says:

    What a wonderful story of the finding of the likely potential of a genuine Elizabethan writing quill? Feathers are glorious objects dropped from varied birds I frequently pick up during my gadding walks. I have a bunch of large feathers I gathered up some time ago dropped by Greylag Geese that in their migration had stopped by a West London stream. And, I though “quills to make pens from”. Which makes me think that the National Archives might, if it hasn’t already, facilitate classes, or podcasts, or any such educational hands-on event that would have participants cut their own quill with a ‘penknife’, perhaps make their own ink from some ‘ink making ingredient’, to then write with their quill pen their signature in the style of, with so many flourishes, as of HM Queen Elizabeth first calligraphic ‘Elizabeth’.

  14. Cliff Thornton says:

    I presume that it is a goose quill, but it would be nice to have confirmation of the source of the quill by an expert in ornithology.

  15. Susan Potts-Bury says:

    The feathers are going in the wrong direction to the quill. Has the feathery bit been inserted into the end of the quill part? This has got me puzzled.

  16. Hubert Allen says:

    Is it a goose feather, a swan’s feather, or from another bird? Raven?

  17. Hubert Allen says:

    I’m interested to know what species of bird the quill came from.

  18. Marion O. Weaver says:

    Why can’t the quill be dated? Current procedures use a lot less material needed for identification.

  19. Charlotte Starkey says:

    Fascinating! May have missed this detail, but what is the length of the quill – it looks about 10″ to 12″.

    Really wonderful to think of the history of this ‘pen’. Could the pen have been left within this collection at a date later than 1603 when papers were moved or do you think it has ‘travelled’ with the original documents where it was found by the archivist? I imagine answers to some of the above comments will be able to answer these questions, too.

  20. Ivan Nugus says:

    Really interesting

    Will the testing inform us from which bird species the quill was created?

  21. Gloria Nicol says:

    My first thought was DNA – there is no info given on the nature of the document itself – ie could it be QE1 or Cromwell who was the author or could that quill user have descendants living today?

  22. Chris Wadham says:

    Delightful story. Interested to see how much of the feathered part of the quill was used. The few quills which I own are much shorter and I’ve always suspected the Hollywood image of an enormous feather tickling the nose of a writer! This one appears to be roughly similar in length to a fountain pen with the cap on?

  23. Geoffrey Tobin says:

    I second Peter Garwood’s query about cleaning. I am concerned it erases some of the evidence for the historic context.

  24. Russell carkett says:

    Very interesting find ,it’s like finding things in walls or thatch cottages or digging up a jar in the garden.

  25. Bryan Jerrard says:

    I am keen to know which feathers from which bird were most often used as quills? Was it the second longest feather from a goose-I once read that it may well have been the preferred feather!

  26. Honor Ridout says:

    From the photo, it seems never to have been cut to make a pen -and no sign of ink. I’d be interested in any personal advice on cutting quills as my attempts have mixed success. Anyone at TNA have this skill?

  27. URSULA BROUGHTON says:

    Someone making an abbreviated extract of the main text may have left his quill to act as a marker, but never returned. It could have been already some age. Could we know what was written about on the two open pages?

  28. Mary Leaming says:

    There are many relevant questions in the comments above, relating to bird species, dating, place of origin etc, all of which I would think it is important to answer. The report was very vague and not at all from an archaeological perspective. Have you answered any of them and if so, where can I find the answers? If not, why not?
    My final observation is that sending the quill out with the book will lead to contamination, damage and probable theft.

  29. Ms Flo says:

    What kind of bird do you think the quill is from? You are really good at this.
    Grade 2b/a from a northern suburbs school.

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