I have an ongoing AHRC funded project with artist Sarah Craske that seeks to examine the relationship between art and science through an analysis of a 300-year-old English copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that Sarah stumbled upon in a corner of an East Kent junk shop. It dates from 1735, and in its nearly 300 years of existence it has passed from reader to reader, picking up layers of biological history (bacteria, viruses, skin cells).
Through Sarah’s research we have found out that the book predates the technology that allowed wood to be converted into paper, and that instead, it pages are made from used clothes (rags). A ready source of such material was from the garments of individuals who had died in their many thousands in hospitals. Given the intimacy of clothing to the body, these rags would have contained human skin cells, bodily fluids, and perhaps even the bacteria that might have caused the infection that killed their original owners. In the context of Ovid’s own stories of Metamorphoses, I find it profound, that this very intimate material with its own hidden biological message, has itself been transformed into the pages of book in this way.
When examined under a microscope, the fibres from these clothes are clearly visible and most of them appear to be bleached and colourless. Occasionally though, the microscope reveals a brightly coloured 300-year-old thread that must have been woven into the fabric of the paper during its making. In a sense, I feel as if these threads are microscopically illustrating Ovid’s text, with their own abbreviated stories of tragedy given their likely origin and processes outline above.