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UC to bring 600-year-old treasure to the world

UC academics and students to bring 600-year-old treasure to the world

University of Canterbury staff and students are working to translate and digitise a unique medieval manuscript to make it accessible to the world, and a team of British scientists is visiting Christchurch in January to reveal hidden information about the 600-year-old scroll's origins.

The 15th-century English illuminated genealogical scroll, known as the Canterbury Roll, dates to the Wars of the Roses. It was acquired by the University of Canterbury (UC) in 1918 and remains the only genealogical roll in the southern hemisphere.

The “Canterbury Roll Project” is designed to make the unique scroll more accessible, medieval historian UC Senior Lecturer Dr Chris Jones says.

“Once owned by the original Nurse Maude, Sybilla Maude, the Canterbury Roll is the most significant and substantial medieval artefact in New Zealand. For 100 years, UC has been the guardian of this unique 600-year-old treasure, which tells the history of England from its mythical origins to the late Middle Ages,” he says.

“No-one has anything like this in New Zealand or Australia. And it’s utterly bonkers that no-one really knows we have it, because it’s magnificent!”

To mark the centenary of its acquisition, UC is releasing a new digital edition and translation of the Canterbury Roll.

“Using cutting edge technology that allows users to interact directly with the manuscript, UC is making the Roll available to the world accompanied by a brand new English translation,” says Dr Jones. The digitised Canterbury Roll will be available to the public in 2018.



A British scientific research team will visit UC in the second week of January to carry out in-depth testing of the Roll to look for ‘hidden’ writing and any other features.

“The UK scientific team will be carrying out a series of tests on the Roll with specialised equipment. The science itself is new: it’s ground-breaking work that has never before been applied to this type of manuscript.”

The leader of the UK scientific team is Professor Haida Liang, Head of Imaging & Sensing for Archaeology, Art History & Conservation research group at Nottingham Trent University, UK.

About the Canterbury Roll

A unique item in the University of Canterbury’s Special Collections, the Canterbury Roll is a unique example of a medieval manuscript in New Zealand and Australia, Dr Jones says.

“It’s visually striking. The Wars of the Roses are what ‘Games of Thrones’ is based on, and this is the Wars of the Roses laid out across a 5-metre, visually spectacular document. It is not the only manuscript roll from this period to exist in the world, but, uniquely, it features contributions from both the key players in the Wars of the Roses – it was originally drawn up by the Lancastrian side in the conflict but it fell into Yorkist hands and they re-wrote part of it.”

The Canterbury Roll was owned by the famous Cantabrian known as Nurse Maude, Sybilla Maude.

“We are unclear how her family acquired it, although the family believed in 1918 that they had owned it since the Middle Ages,” Dr Jones says.

Canterbury College professors bought the Roll as part of an effort to help foster a sense of British identity in the closing days of WWI, according to the historian.

“The Roll is both an important part of European history and – after a century – an important part of the New Zealand story,” Dr Jones says.

“In particular, it embodies the way attitudes to colonialism have changed: it began as celebration of New Zealand as a British colony; from the 1970s it was hidden away as an embarrassing reminder of that colonial past; today, it has been dusted off and is used in comparative teaching to explore differences and similarities between western concepts and whakapapa.”

About the Canterbury Roll Project

The digital edition of the Canterbury Roll is ground-breaking, Dr Jones says.

“People have released ‘digital’ rolls in the UK and the US but they tend to be static photos. This is a fully ‘scrolling’, online and zoomable text. It’s considerably more sophisticated than anything that exists in the world today.”

He’s particularly proud of the student involvement in the Canterbury Roll Project.

“The digitisation project is a showcase for UC students: The Latin transcription is the work of current and former UC students; the translation is the work of a current UC Master of Arts student. The project is based in the UC Arts Digital Lab but driven through the student internship programme. In 2017 alone we have had 15 UC students working on the project at 300- and 400-level via internships schemes,” he says.

“It provides a fantastic way for students to develop transferable skills ranging from team work to direct work in coding. It demonstrates students can learn 'real world' transferable skills relating to group work and coding via Arts projects.”

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