Cataloging and digitizing estampages of inscriptions from Leiden University Library

A blogpost by Arlo Griffiths

Thanks to colonial-period connections not only with scholars and institutions in the Dutch East-Indies, but also with archaeologists in British India, the Leiden University library (UBL) holds a number of documents relevant to the study of Indonesian and Indian epigraphy.


UBL, Kern Institute Collection: one of 11 estampages under number D44. The original is still preserved at Museum Nasional, Jakarta, Indonesia.

To begin with, it holds a massive collection of archaeological photographs, including hundreds of photographs of inscriptions, most significantly from the photographic series of the former Oudheidkundige Dienst in Nederlandsch-Indië, from the photo collections of the former Kern Institute. I hope to dedicate a future blog post to this photographic archive, while focusing here on its other holdings relevant to Indian and Indonesian epigraphy.

These comprise a small number of original copper-plate inscriptions of Indian or Indonesian origin, plus a set of plaster casts of Indonesian inscriptions:

  • Or. 1687: 21 double-sided plates — the ‘Larger Leiden Plates’ of Rājendra Chola I, Sanskrit and Tamil
  • Or. 1688: 3 double-sided plates — the ‘Smaller Leiden Plates’ of Rājendra Chola I, Sanskrit and Tamil
  • Or. 4998: 1 double-sided plate — the Pintang Mas grant, Sanskrit and Old Javanese
  • Or. 27.190: double-sided plate — the Himad-Walandit grant, Old Javanese
  • Or. 27.191: 2 double-sided plates — the Sanga grant, Old Javanese
  • Or. 27.192: 19 plaster casts of the Polengan copper-plate inscriptions, Old Javanese

Descriptions of Or. 1687, 1688 and 4998 are findable online through the Leiden University library catalogue, but the remaining items, donated to the library in 2017 by Peter Worsley from the inheritance of F.H. van Naerssen, have received shelfmarks but not yet been entered into the online catalog.

Finally, the UBL holds ‘estampages’ or ‘rubbings’ (traditionally called ‘abklatschen’ in Leiden) of Indian and Indonesian inscriptions, all from the former Kern Institute Collection.

This material has not been properly furnished with shelfmarks, and not been cataloged in detail, although a Collection Guide is publicly available and unpublished lists exist for these holdings, classified as follows:

  • D: stone inscriptions held at Museum Nasional, Jakarta — 174 inscriptions
  • E: copper-plate inscriptions held at Museum Nasional, Jakarta — 60 inscriptions
  • K: stone inscriptions held on locations throughout Indonesia — 93 inscriptions
  • N: other stone inscriptions, mostly from locations in India — 18 inscriptions

In most cases, more than one estampage was necessary to cover a single inscription, typically for artefacts that are inscribed on more than one surface, and in many cases more than a single estampage was made and sent to Leiden of a single inscribed surface. In other words, the numbers in the above overview do not reflect with any precision the number of items in this collection.

Adeline Levivier taking preliminary photographs of a large uninked estampage

All items from the E list, impressions in red ink on paper, have been digitized in 2008 and are findable through the UBL’s catalog. In 2016, the UBL was moreover able to digitize 7 items from list N, representing a total of 28 images in TIFF format, and a total nearly 5 GB. Though these do not seem to have been made findable yet through the UBL’s own portal, they have been used to illustrate the relevant inscriptions on the database Early Inscriptions of Āndhradeśa.

Wrapper with label for estampage D48 and the folded estampage in question

The D, K and N estampages are kept in rolls that are grouped together in boxes. Some of the estampages of these three lists — all of those in the N list — are made with black ink and show the inscriptions as they were meant to be read, while the majority have been produced with a technique that represents the original engraved letters only by impressions in the paper, and shows the engraved letters in mirror-image.

UBL, Kern Institute Collection: one of 2 estampages under number D57. Photo inverted horizontally to make the inscription legible.

This factor, combined with the unwieldy size of many estampages, as well as the fact that they have been kept rolled up for about a hundred years, not to mention that many Indonesian inscriptions were in poor state of preservation already during the first decades of the 20th century, when these estampages were made, considerably impairs the legibility of many of these estampages. To a certain degree, these challenges can be overcome by digital reproduction, particularly by a special photographic approach, combining shots of the same object with light from different angles, that can be merged into single ‘pseudo-3D’ images that bring out the contrast impressed into the paper and so make the estampages more easily legible.

Estampage UBL, Kern Institute Collection: one of 10 estampages under number D54. Photo inverted horizontally to make the inscription legible.

On behalf of DHARMA, in Nov. 2019 the EFEO has signed an agreement with the UBL that will lead to the complete cataloging of these estampages as well as the digitization of all copper plates, all plaster casts, and a selection among the hundreds of estampages. Three trips have so far been undertaken to Leiden (Oct. 2019, Jan. 2020, Febr. 2020) during which I was accompanied by Adeline Levivier, while Marine Schoettel joined us during the most recent visit to Leiden.

Marine Schoettel recording cataloging data into a spreadsheet
Arlo Griffiths recording cataloging data into a spreadsheet

Our work involves opening all boxes and unrolling the estampages, establishing their physical description (inked or uninked, number of lines, measurements, etc.), determining of which (face of which) inscription they represent the text, and taking preliminary photographs that will help us determine which items need to be digitized. Our selection will of course include all estampages of those inscriptions whose originals have suffered damage since colonial times or are no longer accessible in Jakarta or on locations in Indonesia. Otherwise, we will probably limit ourselves to those which best lend themselves to reproduction: many are very substantial in size, or irregular (not flat) in shape, and thus pose challenges to the digitization that will in due course be carried out by our Visual Data Manager Adeline Levivier. She has elaborate experience with this kind of work based on her involvement in the project E-STAMPAGES which focuses on the estampage collections for ancient Greek inscriptions kept at the École française d’Athènes and at the Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée at Lyon.

Before the COVID19 crisis interrupted the continuation of our work in Leiden, we had finished basic cataloging the D items (about 400 estampages for 174 inscriptions) and made good headway with cataloging the K items (about 100 estampages cataloged so far, for 40 out of 93 inscriptions). When we can resume work, we will try to finish this initial cataloging phase as soon as possible, and then proceed to the digitization phase, so as to make these documents, many of which will prove very valuable to the DHARMA project, available for use without further delay.

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