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July 28, 2006

Bog Psalms
Posted by Teresa at 04:51 PM * 47 comments

A startlingly well-preserved psalter dating from C.E. 800-1000 has turned up in an Irish bog. Man of the hour: the keen-eyed backhoe operator who spotted the psalter and stopped digging in time to preserve it.

It’s a hell of a find. Here’s another version of the story.

There was a brief silly kerfluffle over the psalter being found open to Psalm 83, which supposedly refers to Israel getting wiped off the map. Fortunately, Dr. Patrick F. Wallace, Director of the National Museum of Ireland, popped up to say it’s no such thing:

The Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr. Patrick F. Wallace, would like to highlight that the text visible on the manuscript does NOT refer to wiping out Israel but to the ‘vale of tears’.

This is part of verse 7 of Psalm 83 in the old latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate) which, in turn, was translated from an original Greek text would have been the version used in the medieval period. In the much later King James version the number of the Psalms is different, based on the Hebrew text and the ‘vale of tears’ occurs in Psalm 84. The text about wiping out Israel occurs in the Vulgate as Psalm 82 = Psalm 83 (King James version).

It is hoped that this clarification will serve comfort to anyone worried by earlier reports of the content of the text.

The National Geographic online has pitched in to say the discovery isn’t a portent of the imminent arrival of Armageddon, either. It’s nice to get that cleared up. Of course, the fact that it’s necessary to get that cleared up is enough to make you beat your head against a wall.
Comments on Bog Psalms:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:01 PM:

And besides that, Psalm 83 doesn't actually describe Israel being wiped out. It describes somebody worrying that Israel's enemies are going to wipe it out, and asking God to open up a cask of divine whup-ass on them.

Psalm 83:4 turns up in my family's Passover liturgy, in a section devoted to memorializing the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

#2 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:02 PM:

It's clearly a reference to ex-President Gerald Ford, who (last I heard) was in a hospital in Vail, Colorado. Man! How does God know these things!?

#3 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:03 PM:

Still, it's a great discovery. Lucky those medieval monks used to read on the bog.

#4 ::: PhilPalmer ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:22 PM:

I am reminded of the Flann O'Brien/Myles na Gopaleen story of Dublin nouveaux riches who filled their large new houses with libraries of respectability-endowing books. But since the books were obviously unread the sense of conferred intellectualism was muted. To compensate, impoverished scholars were hired to provide summaries, crack spines, thumb pages, make books fall open at the "good bits", etc.

However, wage inflation ensued and the calibre of book-thumbers fell. Eventually one of these "scholars" read his employer's books by dint of plowing them into a field.

How interesting that this technique was already in use in C.E. 800-1000.

#5 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:26 PM:

It's not clear from any of the articles I've seen whether or not it's illuminated. They discuss the text, and they cite the Book of Kells, but not a word about any decoration. Inquiring minds who did seminar papers on Irish manuscripts want to know!

#6 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:29 PM:

PhilPalmer, speculation I saw was that it went into the field as protection from a Viking raid. Looks like it got a little too well protected. Me, I wonder what else ended up in the same bog, and whether the archaeologists have taken it over.

#7 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:30 PM:


"Illuminated . . ."

How long before some third-rate Elmer Gantry reads that word and starts crowing about the glowing miracle bible?

#8 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 06:33 PM:

Cheez louize, Stefan! Don't make me startle the cat.

#9 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 07:00 PM:

So, news of the glowing miracle bible frightened a cat, a holy symbol of the ancient idol-worshipping Egyptians who once tried to destroy the Hebrew people?

It's all coming together people!

#10 ::: mac ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 07:26 PM:

Let me just say that those articles are a bit of an insult to the real hero of the story. Nobody even mentions the backhoe operator's name, much less interviewed the guy.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 07:34 PM:

I think finding any ancient text like that is a miracle. It is amazing that a book was preserved in a bog (fortunately, the book was vellum). I'm not clear on how that happened -- how the ink didn't get lifted off.

#12 ::: Jim Flannery ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 08:31 PM:

One reason Natl Geographic may have felt clarification was necessary was CNN using it as a leadin to an interview with rapturist cranks

#13 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 09:44 PM:

I can just picture some monk watching the book sink and thinking "All that work to preserve that wisdom for the ages, and now no one will ever see it..."

#14 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 10:47 PM:

A backhoe operator noticed a book in the mud. Amazing.

#15 ::: Annalee Flower Horne ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 10:49 PM:

Pheh, prophesies. If reading it doesn't drive you mad or summon an elder god from his slumber to rain huge tentacled destruction over the earth, it's small potatoes.

Just sayin'.

(As a 'history of the bible' nerd, though, I have to say I'm doing a geeky dance of glee at the find).

#16 ::: Bill Hooker ::: (view all by) ::: July 28, 2006, 10:49 PM:

Lucky those medieval monks used to read on the bog.

*kicks Kip in the shins*

#17 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 12:22 AM:

I'm not clear on how that happened -- how the ink didn't get lifted off.

I can't remember where I read or heard that under these conditions the ink actually darkened the vellum with a chemical reaction. It may have been lifted off, but the vellum would still be marked where it was.

#18 ::: JonathanMoeller ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 01:22 AM:

the discovery isn't a portent of the imminent arrival of Armageddon, either.

Hell, it's not as if portents of Armaggedon are so rare these days, anyhow. You just have to go stand outside until the heatstroke gets you, or a hurricane blows you away, or somebody blows something up, or a cable company proposes a frighteningly Mark Of The Beast-esque tiered Internet.

Or until a Senator proposes we switch to tube-based internets.

#19 ::: John Stanning ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 06:02 AM:

Yeah, this is way above the regular standard of backhoe operators. Normally it goes like this:

SFX: rumble of backhoe.
... Awful silence.
Me (runs out of office): You idiot, you've just dug through a 10,000 volt cable and blacked out our whole block!
Him: rrr, duh, didn see anythin...
Me (tears hair): Sh*t, all our systems are going to be down for weeks!
Him: rrrr, like, sorry, duh, just doin what da boss told me...
Etc. Etc.

[For non-physicists here, the idiot survives because he's enclosed in his metal cab, though even the dumbest driver does notice that something has happened.]

#20 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 09:11 AM:

One reason Natl Geographic may have felt clarification was necessary was CNN using it as a leadin to an interview with rapturist cranks.

Is the Joel Rosenberg of the interview the same person as the sf/f writer? I ask because I know that the writer is Jewish and Zionist. Has he gone over to the Christian fundies?

#21 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 09:13 AM:

Xopher saith: I can't remember where I read or heard that under these conditions the ink actually darkened the vellum with a chemical reaction. It may have been lifted off, but the vellum would still be marked where it was.

That's amazing. I wonder what the ink was made from.

#22 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 09:50 AM:

Xopher, Fragano: It was in Open Thread 67, on this very Making Light. Start at comment #135045 and read down, for some interesting discussion about the preservative nature of bogs (and why it's a good thing the psalter was on vellum, not paper), Margaret Organ-Kean's remarks on the ink, and what The Book of Kells wordlessly reveals about the dietary habits of the people who made it.

#23 ::: Scorpio ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 11:31 AM:

That is about the truth. I am getting really tired of people trying to visit their mythologies on me -- and with the way those mythologies act as inducers of insanity. I went so far as to post the Huffington diatribe, which has something to offend everyone, on a list I belong to:

#24 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 11:35 AM:

Xopher, sometimes the ink will eat through the vellum, leaving the letters as cutouts in the page.

#25 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 12:11 PM:

Paul A: Thanks!

#26 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 12:25 PM:

OK, I rather thought that Cennino Cennini had covered iron gall ink in his Il Libro dell' Arte but he didn't. He favored various recipes involving burnt things.

However a quick visit to Google in search of iron gall ink recipes brings - tada! - more than you ever wanted to know about iron gall ink.

It's the Ink Corrosion Website. Absolutely amazing (from my point of view).

#27 ::: FungiFromYuggoth ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 01:42 PM:

Fragano: Thank Ghu, Joel Rosenberg and Joel C. Rosenberg are different people. This does seem to be a common confusion.

Back to the thread, this is pretty cool. I wonder if this means that backhoes can be used to dowse for things other than fibre optic cables?

#28 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 03:29 PM:

FungiFromYuggoth: Thanks for the clarification!

#29 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 04:23 PM:

Aconite...that's not so good. Especially if the page is written on both sides!

#30 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 04:35 PM:

I wonder if this means that backhoes can be used to dowse for things other than fibre optic cables?

They're really good for finding water pipes in city streets, especially those pipes that have inexplicably dropped off the blueprints...

#31 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 05:15 PM:

Backhoes are also good for finding gas mains, especially the ones that are either plastic pipe or high-pressure lines.

#32 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 05:46 PM:

The ms. is not illuminated like Kells, though there are some illuminated initials. Even though it's roughly 175-200 years early the Cathach of St. Colum, another psalter, is a better comparison. I've linked to some images of it (it's also a partial psalter) in my own post.

The ink was based on oak galls, and it not only penetrates the vellum, it leaves chemical traces even if it's scraped off; you need a black light to see them, or sometimes, multi-spectrum imaging, to get them back. The real danger is exposure to light; that does cause the ink to fade.

I've posted about the bog psalter here.

#33 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 06:07 PM:

The Irish, bless them, left us a recipe for ink.

They used Oak galls, both locally produced and imported from Aleppo (the best ones came from Allepo and they were as good as hard money). They were ground up and left to soak in rain water for a few days. The strained mixture was then mixed with what we'd call gum Arabic, made from the sap of an Acacia tree. Irish scribes used both copperas (ferrous sulphate) and lamp black (carbon). It sort of tans the vellum, thus leaving a mark even when the ink itself is gone.

The problem with this mss. is exposure to air will darken all the surface, and then, other things will, well, grow on it, and microbes and fungus will destroy it, and then the acid will destroy it as well.

#34 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 09:08 PM:

Lisa S: What did the mediśval Irish sell to the Syrians in exchange for the oak galls and gum arabic?

#35 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 09:22 PM:

Stupid question: Are oak galls something different from acorns? We've been talking about oak galls and I just realized that if they aren't acorns I have no idea what they are.

#36 ::: Katrina Stonoff ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 09:59 PM:

Oak galls are nothing like acorns. Acorns are, of course, the natural fruit of the tree.

Galls are distorted growth in the wood caused by a little bug. There can be galls on leaves (those are the ones I'm most familiar with), but I believe the galls they use for ink are in the wood itself.

If you've ever seen a branch that has a rounded lump on it (knobby growth?), that's probably a gall.

#37 ::: Margaret Organ-Kean ::: (view all by) ::: July 29, 2006, 10:00 PM:

Oak galls are a sort of oak tumor caused by certain insects, maybe other things. I think there's more than one kind (which could explain why Syrian oak galls are superior to Irish oak galls). (Not a botanist, not even playing one on TV)

They are not acorns.

#38 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2006, 01:11 AM:

Oak Galls are made by insects. They lay eggs on the leaves and on the bark of the oak. Then the egg sort of swells, under the leaf or bark, and the larva grows, and the gall gets about the size of a medium to large grape. The ones from leaves are not worth picking; you want one that's made on the side of a twig or the bark of a branch or trunk.

Then the catterpillar like thing bores a hole and leaves, sometimes as a fly sometimes as a caterpillar. You want to harvest the gall as soon after that as possible, because the tannin soon decays the gall, and if you do it before, the tannin hasn't accumulated; there's some sort of a tannin exchange biological process that involves the critter, though as yet I've found no good explanation of how/why the tannin that is naturally produced by the oak accumulates in the gall.

The ones from Aleppo seem to be higher in tannin, and it seems to be a product of the oak species, rather than the critter making the gall. They came to Ireland by way of France, and monastaries mostly bought with them with processed hides, ready for vellum manufacture, and with prepared ready-to-use vellum. As yet, we can't or haven't distinguished the kind of gall used based on chemical analyis of the ink, though we have done that with respect to the copper in the ink, and there's been some research into the DNA of the cow or sheep used in the vellum. We know, for instance that more than the Dun Cow was used for the Book of the Dun Cow.

#39 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2006, 11:57 AM:

Greg London writes: "A backhoe operator noticed a book in the mud. Amazing."

I read someplace that the owner of the land in which the bog is located is mindful of what wonderful things can be found preserved in bogs, and asked the workers to be on the lookout.

I wonder if he was hoping for a bog mummy, and was a bit disappointed.

#40 ::: Lisa Spagenberg ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2006, 12:53 PM:

Well, backhoe operators have been responsible for finding several bog bodies, so quite possibly, yes.

But bogs were used as cthonic ritual deposit areas, so lots of other lovely things are found there as well, like swords, arm rings, cauldrons, coins, infixes . . .

#41 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: July 30, 2006, 05:02 PM:

Lisa Spangenberg said:
... there's been some research into the DNA of the cow or sheep used in the vellum.

Weird and cool. In retrospect, it makes sense that you might be able to do that, but it had never occured to me that someone had gone and done it.

I believe that the insects which cause oak galls are usually wasps (very small wasps).

#42 ::: Karl T. ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2006, 07:43 PM:

If I'm remembering the movie _Kinsey_ correctly, didn't Dr. Kinsey do research on 'gall wasps' before doing his work on human sexuality? Are these the sorts of wasps that create oak galls?

There's a lovely ring of threads here somewhere, along the lines of Psalms > Song of Solomon > sex > Kinsey > gall wasps > oak galls > ink > Irish monks tossing perfectly good Psalters into bogs > Psalms ... but I don't pretend to Mike Ford's talents.

#43 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2006, 08:00 AM:

Karl T: Yes, it looks like Kinsey did do research on gall wasps; I found a brief summary here.

There are apparently well over a thousand species of gall wasp. However (because Nature is never content with being simple) galls can also be formed by other insects. For example, the phylloxera aphid that devastated European vineyards in the 19th Century causes galls to form on grapevine roots and leaves.

#44 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2006, 11:01 AM:

There's also, in Ireland and the UK a species of fly (native to Britain, but apparently not to Ireland, in addition to wasps and aphids, that creates oak galls.

The aphid galls are small; it's hard to remove them from the tree without crushing the gall. I suspect all the galls I've used were from wasps.

#45 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2006, 01:16 PM:

Okay, this is what I get for pretending what is not a Poetry Challenge is, especially very late at night.

Apologies in advance, and though it'll probably be obvious in a verse or so, the tune is "So Where'd Those Darn Flowers Get To, Anyway?"

About a thousand years ago
In old Ireland
Brother Padric set him down
For praise on page
They had geese and they had sheep
All the things those places keep
But life is full of doubt;
Seems that the ink was out

Padric took a little trip
To the Eastern lands
If you want these things done right
You send a monk
In the East Aleppo lay
Tigris-and-Euphrates way
Out where there grew a tree
Stately as an oak can be.

Green and leafy stood the oak
As they tend to do
Giving shade and well bespoke
And it had wasps
Leaving eggs upon its leaves
Now a tree, it never grieves
Where we would be appalled
A tree is merely galled

Padric bought a bag of galls
At Aleppo fair
With a bit of haggling there
(Thatís how itís done)
Though the price was likely high
Thereís a cost for what you buy,
The word wasps speak to men
Is universal ken

Pardon please while we digress
Centuries and seas away
To old I. U.
Alfred Kinsey watched the bugs
Meeting trees and cutting rugs
Down other paths it led
But letís not lose the thread

Padric sits in northern light
With a tankard full
Tannin, gum, and vitriol
And his goose quill
All the Psalmistsí words come through,
David, Woody, Dylan too,
And before very long
He hears another song

Itís the Song of Songs, of course
(Though not Solomonís)
Life is short but art is long
(Hereís to metaphor)
Watch her feet in sandal shoon
Itís an old familiar tune
Monks are not made of wood
Some things are understood.

Padric put his stylus down
Then what happened?
How did book come into bog?
We may never know;
Did the Norsemen make them flee,
Psaltery and battery?
Odd how we give events
A shot of violence

So the vellum went to sleep
Underneath the mire
We know the pH was right
Where light donít shine
And when the reactionís done
Ink and sheep become as one
Itís as we like to say,
Words do not fade away.

Now the years have come and gone
(Itís their habit to)
And the way earth turns around
Who would suppose
That a sharp-eyed bloke would be
Working with a JCB
Another page to turn
Another page to turn

#46 ::: snavegreg ::: (view all by) ::: August 04, 2006, 11:55 AM:


#47 ::: Lisa Spangenberg ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2006, 02:32 PM:

They've found some more of the psalter, including cover fragments, and a protective storage pouch. They've also identified the site of the bog, and the backhoe driver.

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