IRONIC -  Iron Gall Ink Challenges - History and Conservation of a disappearing Cultural Heritage



Code . PTDC/ART-HIS/32327/2017

Start . 2018

Duration . 37 months

Principal Investigator . Ana Claro (CHAM)  . David Martín Marcos (CHAM)





Funding Entity

Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia

Main Research Unit

CHAM — Centro de Humanidades 

Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas / Universidade Nova de Lisboa


Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas
Faculdade de Letras / Universidade de Lisboa
Universidade da Coruña


Centro de Linguística / Universidade de Lisboa
Institute for Sustainable Heritage / University College London




IRONIC, a multi and interdisciplinary project, combines a diversity of fields such as history, written culture, archiving and conservation science, restoration, chemistry and nanotechnology. The scope of this project is to develop an innovative nanotechnology-based kit for the treatment at point-of-care of the iron gall ink corrosion process. Being the main ink used in Europe since the 5th century, found on manuscripts, music scores, drawings, letters, maps, and official documents such as wills, bookkeeping records, logs, real estate transactions, etc., its study is crucial to avoid the continuous loss of Cultural Heritage kept in archives, libraries, museums and private collections.

This project will allow to gather and to study the information about archival conservation issues since the 14th century, the creation time of Torre do Tombo, an institution that would originate the actual National Archive of Torre do Tombo (ANTT). Special care will be given to the “Archive of Archive”, the main reference about the institution procedures.

Also, for previous periods, the collection "Drawers" and "Registro Geral de Mercês" will be analysed in order to identify appointments criteria of their staff and action protocols within the archive. This documentation will probably act as a proof of a long-term concern for European societies. Associated to State formation processes, by correlating the power theories with the development of archiving and conservation sciences, showing that it was not a fundamental issue for cultural heritage, but a demonstration of the State's interest in preserving 'valuable' reputed information, in the bureaucratic-administrative domain.

IRONIC will identify and characterize the alteration of the inks used in the selected dated manuscripts from ANTT. Assembling those data with the ones that will be obtained from recreated ink historical recipes, standard samples mimicking the historic ones will be reproduced, changing some established parameters, the stroke for instance, and artificially aged. This aging will allow to better understanding the corrosion process in its different phases, and to act against the problem.

The advantages that nanotechology has brought to other fields last years, will be used in Cultural Heritage. The polyoxometalates (POMs for short) for catalytic and biomedical purposes, could be used as radical scavengers that, upon encapsulation in polymeric scaffolds, will stop and prevent further long-term corrosion of the ink. Therefore, IRONIC will also develop the “ironic kit”, a new treatment which will be an important and reference tool made available to the worldwide Conservators and keepers to better preserve the documental cultural heritage

The unique combination of problem (Cultural Heritage conservation) and solution (Anticorrosive Nanohybrid Materials), together with the well-defined project work plan and objectives means that IRONIC has the potential for excellence.




The scope and primary objective of this project is to develop an innovative nanotechnology-based kit for the treatment at point-of-care of the iron gall ink corrosion process which occurs in a range of different cultural heritage documents ranging from manuscripts, music scores, drawings, letters and maps to official documents such as wills, bookkeeping records, logs and real estate transactions, etc. The second objective is to gather and study the available information about archival conservation issues since the 14th century, as a proof of a long-term concern for European societies, associated to State formation processes.

IRONIC involves a multi and interdisciplinary team which unites various research fields including history, written culture, archiving and conservation science, restoration and chemistry to enrich the study of the iron gall ink corrosion process, its effects under two distinct but correlated points of view: material and historical.

From a historical and archival perspective the information about meaning, maintenance and protection of written source is spread out if not lost. By carrying out a survey of the written collection of National Archive of Torre do Tombo (ANTT), IRONIC aims to: 1) elaborate an assessment of the criteria that would have justified the transcriptions of some documents, considering not only the written information value but also the conservation state of the support; 2) identify the regulations of Archive procedures for the conservation of documents heritage; 3) find guidelines allied to the archive technicians, protocols of action, organization charts and conservation duties and; 4) relate the archival practices to manuscripts conservation and archival organization as evidences of Power.

Alongside that, technicians from ANTT composed by keepers, curators and conservators will select a set of documents where the ink corrosion process is identified. This collaboration will provide historical samples to validate the IRONIC treatment kit and simultaneously allow sharing their knowledge in recognizing the problema.

The documents will be analyzed and characterized at Laboratório HERCULES – Évora University, in order to distinguish the inks and supports used. At the same time, the production of the standard samples mimicking real samples will be achieved by using historical techniques.  They will be used to understand the corrosion process of the ink and how it degrades the paper - a crucial step during this project to develop the IRONIC kit treatment. 

The IRONIC team will work directly with a team of nanotechnology researchers at the Aragón Materials Science Institute (ICMA) in Spain that will use polyoxometalates (POMs for short) as radical scavengers to stop and prevent further longterm corrosion of the ink. At the end of this project, the optimized nanotool will be made as a kit to be validated with real samples.

The high technological risk in this kind of multidisciplinary project is therefore compensated by the high technological and societal gain that its realisation will provide. The academic impact of IRONIC rests on increasing the academic understanding of nanohybrid materials, but also focuses on advancing the frontiers of knowledge by applying new types of nanomaterials to the grand societal challenge of cultural heritage preservation.







Ana Claro   .   Coordenator  

David Martín Marcos   .    Coordenator

André Filipe Neto (CHAM)

Alexandra Vidal
Carla Lobo (ANTT / DGLAB)
Jesús Martinez de la Fuente (ICMA / CSIC | UNIZAR)
Matija Strlic (UCL)
Rita Marquilhas (CLUL / UL)
Scott Mitchell (ICMA / CSIC | UNIZAR)
Teresa Alexandra Ferreira (HERCULES / UÉ)