"Very rare and extremely cool": X-rays to begin on thousands of 17th century letters which were never read

By Ben Miller | 09 November 2015

X-rays used in dentistry to reveal "accidental archive" of letters from all levels of society more than 300 years ago

A photo of a trunk of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
In 2012, in the Museum voor Communicatie in The Hague, a haul of 2,000 opened and undelivered letters were discovered from the Glorious Revolution period between 1689 and 1707, as well as 600 unopened envelopes from a trunk.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
Simon de Brienne and his wife Maria Germain, the postmasters of the Dutch city, collected these letters just after William of Orange’s invasion of England, Scotland and Ireland. Now academics from the universities of Oxford, Leiden, Groningen, Yale and Massachusetts are preparing to use x-ray technology from dentistry to read the closed letters without breaking their seals.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“No-one has ever read them, even the recipients,” says Dr Daniel Starza Smith, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Oxford University who is part of the team analysing these tantalising snapshots of 17th century life.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“It’s the sort of find you daydream about. But it’s also a moral and technical challenge.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“People ask ‘are you going to open them?’ Well, no. Once you break the seal, it’s broken forever – unique material evidence about the past is gone, just like that.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“These letters encourage us to think about letters as closed objects, as mechanical devices, as three-dimensional structures of paper engineering designed to secure international communications.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“And, amazingly, the technology is now available to extract the contents – delicate x-ray scans that detect the iron in the iron gall ink. So we can absolutely have it both ways. “

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
Letters from the elites – “royalty, diplomats and intellectuals”, says Dr Smith – tend to be archived for their perceived value. “Letters from “ordinary” people do not, so they get thrown away.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“But this is a kind of accidental archive, which has frozen in transit voices from all social strata, and lots of women as well as men.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“Because this is a time of mass social displacement, especially among Huguenot religious communities following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, it allows us to think about historical exile and forced migration – still very pressing issues today, of course.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“Many of the writers and intended recipients of these letters were people who travelled throughout Europe, such as wandering musicians and religious exiles.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“Most documents that survive from this period record the activities of elites – aristocrats and their bureaucrats, or rich merchants – so these letters will tell us new things about an important section of society in 17th-century Europe.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“These are the kinds of people whose records frequently don’t survive, so this is a fantastic opportunity to hear new historical voices. It’s very moving to discover the emotional responses of the past.”

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
Dr Smith describes their encasing trunk as “vary rare and extremely cool.” "It’s gorgeous, looks like a treasure trunk, and really seems to stir people’s emotions,” he says.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“It’s pretty much the dream find you can have as an archival researcher. At a time when we as a society have almost stopped writing letters, there’s an enormous nostalgia for them as material artefacts. The beautiful wax and intricate folding patterns in this trunk really evoke strong feelings.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
“Our team has more than 60 years’ experience working in archives between us and it’s the same for us.”

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
De Brienne later became King William III’s official postmaster. His letters survive in their original storage trunk, waterproofed in seal skin and dotted with wax customs seals.

A close-up photo of 17th century letters found by academics at Oxford University
© The Signed, Sealed, & Undelivered team, 2015. De Brienne Collection. Museum voor Communicatie, The Hague, The Netherlands
‘We’ve noticed a striking and quite wonderful variety of folding and sealing techniques used on these letters.

“Our team wants to preserve all of this archive’s fascinating material evidence for further study. What can the way a letter was secured shut tell you about its writer, recipient or the era in which they lived?”


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Three museums to discover literary history in

Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery
Cressida Cowell’s hugely popular book series, How to Train Your Dragon, has inspired the current exhibition, A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons. Originated by Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books, this touring show will transport you back to the Dark Ages, where Vikings ruled and dragons roamed. Until May 30 2016.

Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth
The European battlefields lay far from the Parsonage dining room, but the Brontës were captivated by the Napoleonic conflicts. They read military accounts in newspapers and periodicals and this exposure to war and bloodshed greatly influenced their creativity. Find out how in the Brontës, War and Waterloo exhibition. Until January 3 2016.

British Library, London
To celebrate 150 years of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the library's current major exhibition explores how Alice has captured our imaginations for so many years. Until April 17 2016.
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I am thrilled that technology can help show us our history. History that would have been lost otherwise. Blows me away to think of all we haven't seen yet but will.
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