A Discovery In Africa


Fritz James, top center, poses at the top of Kilimanjaro

In 1987, friends and I traveled to Africa on a journey that included two weeks discovering the beauty of East Africa’s savannas, game preserves, and parks. We allowed one week in Tanzania to climb to the 18,760 foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with a group of climbers and guides.

We began at 6,000 feet, and reached the summit on the sixth day, climbing the last several thousand feet from midnight until seven in the morning. Standing on the highest peak in Africa, the sense of accomplishment is great, and for a while you feel like there is nothing you can’t accomplish.

Back in Nairobi, Kenya, I still had this elevated feeling when I walked into an antique shop and discovered about a dozen Ethiopian prayer books.They were hundreds of years old,printed by hand on goatskin, and sewn onto olive wood board covers. It was such a great opportunity that I asked what the price for all twelve volumes would be. The cost was reasonable, so I purchased the lot.

Ethiopian Prayer Books

After returning to the U.S. with my exotic purchase, I called the late Bill Anthony at the University of Iowa Libraries to ask his advice on how to care for these volumes. He asked that I bring them over to Iowa City, so he and his colleagues could examine them. I presented the prayer book to Bill and he was amazed by my find. He said “You now have a great responsibility to protect and preserve these books. He suggested that I have cases made for the volumes to protect against light, dust, and handling. BookLab in Austin, Texas agreed to construct excellent boxes for the entire collection. I have enjoyed examining these prayer books and feel privileged to have such artifacts in my library.

I can only imagine the time, skill, and patience that it took to create each volume. It has been estimated that each book required 1½ years to letter and bind. There was one unusual object that was included: a small leather talisman that had been worn around someone’s neck for protection and luck. I assumed there was something inside, but did not want to ruin the integrity of the artifact by cutting into it. I had BookLab create a custom box to protect this prayer book. The Talisman has tempted me several times to cut into it to discover its content, but I’ve resisted. A few years ago, while talking with the University of Iowa Libraries about donating my book collection to their Special Collection, I showed UI Librarian John Culshaw and Conservator Emeritus Gary Frost the talisman. John asked if he could borrow the object and possibly have it x-rayed to see what was inside.

A High-tech Dive into the Talisman


In the spring of 2016, Fritz James and a group of us from the University of Iowa Libraries met with researchers in a CT scanning room, hidden in the basement of the UI Hospitals.

The talisman is a small book covered in a brown leather which creates a loop, stitched at the top, so that a cord can be passed through and worn by the owner. The book is completely encased, with more stitching along the sides. Decorative lines have been drawn into the leather surface.

Our “patient” was tiny, and in fact, I carried it in a small clamshell box. The object was small and squareshaped (2.25 inches x 2.75 inches) wrapped in dark brown leather with some blind tooled decorations. The leather created a loop at the top, sewn into place for a cord to run through it. On one of his many visits to Iowa City, Fritz shared his small “talisman” object with UI Libraries staff. Because of its size and shape and what we do know about similar Ethiopic objects, it was fairly certain that the leather pouch contained a book.

Of course, because it was sealed, and undoing the sewing would alter the object forever, the questions remained: Is it really a little book? What does it look like? Is it a manuscript?

The talisman certainly generated inherent intrigue. This particular object is sometimes referred to as a talisman or amulet, and also known as a ketãb (document) or metshaf (book). From Ethiopia, it is a scroll or book sewn into a leather covering, not intended for reading. The ketãb provides protection and is worn around the neck or shoulders of the owner.

The talisman goes into the CT scanner.

Director John Culshaw suggested Fritz have his talisman scanned, ultimately connecting with Eric Hoffman of UI Radiology Department. As we entered the CT scanning room, the technicians were excited to scan something other than a human body. I prepped them a bit, indicating that we probably have leather, wood, animal skins, maybe paper, maybe other fibers, and thread. They seemed enthused and I’m sure it was one of the first archaeological objects ever scanned here. As we placed the small object on a large pillow, everyone was curious to see what the scans, images of “slices” of the material, would look like on the screen. There was a bit of adjusting, and the whole thing seemed quite blurry to me. The technicians were adjusting for such a small thing as well as to find the best “slice” of it. I was skeptical.

Fritz James watches the CT scans coming up on the monitor during the first scanning session at the University of Iowa Radiology Department.

And then the supports showed up. There they were, typical Ethiopian sewing, the chain of the linking stitch and the wooden boards appeared as a strange skeleton. The CT scanner was capturing the wood grain. Ah ha! The wavy text block indicated parchment. Sure enough, a small book. News spread that a book was being scanned and Jessica Sieren from the Iowa Institute of Biomedical Imaging (IIBI) at the University of Iowa, showed up on the scene. She and her team operate a CT scanner at very high resolutions, a micro-scanner, to pinpoint minute areas of an object. They were extremely interested in scanning a variety of materials and Fritz was fascinated by the possibilities.

Micro-scan of the talisman.

The detailed imaging at iibi revealed its structure. The book inside is an example of Ethiopian binding, possibly from the 19th Century. Ethiopian binding is very close to Coptic binding, which originated from the Coptic Christians in Egypt starting as early as the 4th Century. Coptic and Ethiopian book structures use linking stitches to sew pages together as well as cover boards.

In Ethiopian bindings the covers tend to be made of wood. The pages are generally parchment skin, usually goat. Parchment, along with many other uses, is a form of writing substrate prepared by scraping and drying the skin under tension. There is a long history of Ethiopic Orthodox Christianity using talismanic text and imagery for healing and protection. The amulets or talisman seem to be not liturgical in nature and considered “magic” although this is a part of the tradition of Ethiopian culture and accepted in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Example in the UI Library’s Conservation Lab Book Model Collection: a small Ethiopian binding that has already been removed from its sewn leather pouch.

From an example in the UI Library’s Conservation Lab Book Model Collection, the team was able to study another small Ethiopian binding that has already been removed from its sewn leather pouch. In this book, the writing is Ethiopian Gé éz text in black and red ink. The appearance is simple, and with this particular example, there are no decorative elements such as figures or illuminations. By knowing what the scanning team is looking for as it discovers the layers of the book, fine adjustments can be made with equipment and direction of the scans.

This project showcases a new and unique interdisciplinary relationship found within the UI community; the Iowa Institute of Biomedical Imaging (IIBI) and the University of Iowa Libraries Preservation and Conservation department. In this project, multi-resolution, x-ray computed tomography (CT) imaging technology was used to provide insight into the structure and contents of a sealed artifact. This was a creative way to bring together people with strengths in physics, radiology, image analysis, bookbinding, and book history.

About the authors and supporting institutions

Giselle Simón is the University of Iowa Libraries Conservator. She can be contacted at

Fritz James started his career as a book binder with Hertzberg-New Method in Jacksonville, Illinois. He helped manage and grow the business dealing with college, university and federal libraries. In 1978 Fritz purchased Library Binding Service in Des Moines, Iowa. The name was changed to LBS and two divisions were added over the next few years, Archival Products and Corporate Image. LBS continues to provide book binding materials to the U.S. book binders. Fritz created an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) for the employees of LBS and Archival Products. The company is now 100% employee owned. Fritz has collected books for the past 50 years and has developed a very eclectic collection of books, bindings, and titles. For the past 25 years Fritz has pursued a passion of prairie and woodland restoration. He has developed 170 acres in Madison County, Iowa and plans to continue this passion into retirement.

Special thanks to:
• University of Iowa Libraries
• Radiology Dept., UI Hospitals and Clinics
• Iowa Institute for Biomedical Imaging:
– Jessica Sieren, PhD
– Eric Hoffman, PhD
– Susan Walsh, MA
– Michael Acevedo, CNMT

Iowa Institute of Biomedical Imaging
The mission of the IIBI is to foster efficient and cooperative interdisciplinary and crosscollege research and discovery in biomedical imaging, and to improve training and education within the broader community at the University of Iowa. Under the umbrella of the IIBI, state-of-the-art computed tomography (CT) equipment is available, including a dedicated human CT scanner (Siemens SOMATOM® Definition FORCE) and a multi-resolution sample CT scanner (ZEISS Xradia 520 Versa
3D X-ray microscope). Both the CT and X-ray microscopy instruments are currently used for imaging research incorporating biological and non-biological samples. The imaging technology, CT and x-ray microscopy, are currently used in both medical and non-medical scientific research. Both of these systems were purchased through large shared instrumentation grants from the National Institutes of Health, to support on-going and new research objectives both within the University of Iowa and the broader research community. In this collaborative project, the CT systems were used to image the sealed talisman, and an accompanying unsealed exemplar talisman, at a very high resolution (order of microns). The digital image datasets provided a volumetric interior tomography of the object, allowing virtual dissection of the structure.

Archival Products

At Archival Products, we understand the importance of preserving ancient artifacts and honor local history. We look forward to working with you!

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