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Chance to help preserve ‘treasure’

Video: Darrin Zammit Lupi

People can help preserve thousands of historic documents by adopting centuries-old manuscripts and sponsoring their conservation.

“The best thing about this adoption is that sponsors will feel part of the archives and that part of this treasure belongs to them,” according to Joan Abela, who set up the Notarial Archives Resources Council in 2005.

“Our ultimate aim is to open the place for local and international researchers and set up a museum for all.

“The Maltese should be part of the archives. It is not only the heritage of researchers and historians. This is the nation’s heritage. It is our duty to preserve it and it will be a crime if we let it deteriorate,” she told Times of Malta.

The council has just started a €100,000, three-year conservation project sponsored by HSBC Malta at the Notarial Archives in St Christopher Street, Valletta, which already houses over 20,000 volumes. Some 300 metres of shelving are needed to store documents that are still being sorted and cleaned.

Two paper conservators and a historian are sorting pages and documents stacked in boxes filled with decades-worth of debris. Some documents even carry the scars of shrapnel or have bits of metal stuck in them.

In other documents, the acidity of the ink has spread across the pages as the manuscripts were not stored in an adequate environment.

The conservation of the documents and maintenance of the place depend on private sponsorships and the work of volunteers, including restorers, archivists and students.

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done at the archives. We are sorting out documents found in 90 boxes in a room packed to the ceiling.

“At the moment, we are getting the documents out of the boxes, checking their dates and the notary who wrote them.

“There are lots of fragments. At the moment, we are doing basic cleaning and sorting. Eventually, we will get into more detailed conservation and treatment but this depends on the funding that we’ll get,” conservator Theresa Zammit Lupi said.

She noted that the challenges remained funding and human resources: “We need historians who are able to read palaeography and are conversant with legal Latin and old Italian to be able to put the documents into a system.”

The documents at the archives include bastardelli (drafts of notarial contracts) and registered copies of the originals that are at the archives in Mikiel Anton Vassalli Street.

With the oldest manuscript dating back to 1467, that of notary Pawlu Bonello, every document “opens windows” on the social and economic history of the island. They shed light on the Maltese produce and the lives of people from every strata of society, including slaves.

An interesting detail emerging from the information available on the negotiation of slaves is the confirmation that the person being sold had molar teeth, as slaves were fed hard biscuits.

There are other documents about the release of knights captured for ransom and dowry documents shedding light on when the fork started being used in Malta.

It is our duty to preserve it and it will be a crime if we let it deteriorate

During the sorting, the conservators and historians have also come across a 16th century document with a 14th century cover of a illuminated manuscript, which the binder must have used as recyclable material since, by law, documents had to be bound with parchment, which was a costly commodity.

“These documents are a treasure throve and the Maltese should be very proud that we have such an archive,” Dr Abela noted, holding a document with her bare hands, noting that wearing gloves when handling the documents was more likely to cause damage because the grip on the manuscript would be rougher.

“The conservation project is just the beginning and the process will involve more funds as we go along. Adopting a volume would generate funds and also make people feel part of the archives,” she said.

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