Mardzong Manuscripts Project

Mustang Caves
NCN The Project funded by The National Science Centre, Poland, in the framework of the program “SONATA BIS 4”. 

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Components of the Mardzong Manuscripts Project

The codicology of Tibetan books, which looks at each manuscript as a physical entity, is a recently emerging field of study where we think our project belongs. Thus, in general, the study we undertake of the Mardzong manuscripts concerns the relationship of papers, inks, page layout, and book forms to questions of provenance, origin, and dating. To some extent, our work also treats book illumination and decoration.
We aim to study the Mardzong manuscripts by building independent typologies and chronologies that can be referenced by other manuscript studies using broader criteria. Our project’s broader impact would be to change, by example, the way manuscript studies are currently conducted within the framework of linguistically-oriented disciplines. Obtaining dates for the selected manuscripts from this cache is crucial to locate these books within both the local history of the Mustang region and also within the broader perspective of manuscript studies in Central Asia and the Himalayas. Both typology and dating of the books will create solid parameters for comparative research on the history and geography of book craftsmanship, and will also provide information on the production of books in Mustang in a temporal perspective.

Study of paper

Paper is a fragile and quickly-decaying human-made material that is rarely the center of archaeological research, and this has resulted in a relative absence of references and established methodology for the study and conservation of Asian books in situ. Our aim is to apply a variety of analytical techniques in order to date, map the places of origin, and describe the physical features of the manuscripts. This includes identification of fibre composition and description of the technological features of each paper.
Fibre analysis informs us what things are made of, and the primary feature of paper is the type of raw material, usually plant material, used for its production. When comparing the results of fibre analyses of paper with the area of distribution of the same raw plant material, we can obtain information about the possible region of a document’s origins. In this way, fibre analysis can be helpful for both locating the regional origins of papermaking and sometimes for dating, when using a method that entails overlapping typologies. For example, the area suggested by plant distribution can be critically evaluated along with other features in the manuscript, and we can learn whether these features originate from the same area (understood as a cultural context, country, or region) or not. These results also help in answering some questions about the history of paper in the region, as well as the trade and import of paper and other writing materials in the Himalayas and Central Asia. Of course, the more research and data we can give to this endeavor will, over time, achieve higher precision for regional attribution.

Ethnographic study of book-making crafts

The material analysis of particular manuscripts from the Mardzong collection is supported by archival and bibliographic study and supplemented with ethnographic fieldwork in an interdisciplinary approach that cuts across terminological boundaries. Developing regional typologies from both studying manuscripts and interviewing local people contributes to a better understanding and reconstruction of the lesser-known parts of the history of books and the crafts related to their production, such as papermaking and printing. The documentation of differences in the traditional technology of paper production in various parts of Asia, according to the available materials and the occurrence of papermaking plants, provides an independent source of information that facilitates dating and determining the provenance of still unidentified copies of books.

Cultural heritage of Mustang

It is vital to remember that Tibetan manuscripts are objects of the tangible Cultural Heritage. These objects must be studied in the same way as all other archaeological objects because preserved documents validate memories; the actuality of the object, as opposed to a reproduction or surrogate, provides those living with a link to the past. Preservation of these documents demonstrates recognition of the past and of the things that tell its story. In broader perspective, these documents can aid in the reconstruction of the history of craftsmanship and trade in Tibet. Thus we aim to develop a program for preserving the Mardzong collection and will propose guidelines for conservation procedures to keep the collection in proper condition.