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The ancient art of Nag Hammadi in just 2 hours

The craft of traditional bookbinding lives on in Featherston, despite the increase in digital readership forcing book binderies across the globe to shut their doors.

Featherston resident and classical historian, Robyn Ramsden, has been sharing her bookbinding skills in workshops at Booktown Festival since it began in 2015.

Ramsden discovered a passion for traditional bookbinding through her love of mediaeval re-enactments.

After ten years in the scene, Ramsden had crafted all the mediaeval kit she needed for events, and began to think, “what’s next?”.

“I saw someone with a book, a modern book covered in a cloth, trying to read it discreetly so that you couldn’t see,” she said.

“And I thought, oh, that’s it, I’ll make books.

“So that started many years of research and reading, and practising and failing, and redoing, to making mediaeval books.”


Key to Robyn’s learning was access to her university library, where she could investigate damaged, aged texts and learn how they were made internally.

Ramsden binds her own books using a press she keeps in a kitchen cupboard at her home.

Her main focus in bookbinding revolves around the ancient craft of Nag Hammadi.

Nag Hammadi is the name of a town in northern Egypt, where the 4th Century style of book-binding originates from.

Ramsden told Local Focus the story of Nag Hammadi began with 12 books, packed in a vase and hidden.

“Pasted into a wall in a cave,” she said.

“They were deliberately hidden at some point.

“A farmer found them and didn’t know what he had, but he’d unpacked them from the vase – which is a bit of an archaeological ‘no-no’.

“But he had made an effort to go and contact the local authorities to go and have a look at them.

“Whilst he was doing that, his mother burnt one for fuel to cook food, and so there were 11 left.”

Ramsden said the 11 remaining texts went through “all sorts of steps and miss-steps archaeologically-wise”.

“Some were pulled apart and some were cut open,” she said.

“So a lot of the way they were made has been lost.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly how they were constructed because of the damage that was done by other people.”

Inside the books were Christian biblical writings known as Gnostic texts: ‘secret’ gospels, poems and myths attributed to Jesus’ sayings and beliefs, largely different from the New Testament.

“They’re not the books in the Bible,” Ramsden said.

“So there’s controversy over the content, but one of them was a part of Plato’s Republic, which, as a classical historian, I found very intriguing.”

What remained of the Nag Hammadi collection was founded in 1945.

Ramsden noted that when the first Arab-Israeli War arrived in Egypt, Nag Hammadi texts had been dispersed around the world.

Today, the Nag Hammadi scriptures are housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.

Robyn’s Booktown workshop condenses the binding process down to just two hours and most of that time is waiting for glue to dry.

“I teach [Nag Hammadi] because they’re a one quire book, with one set of pages and you don’t have to get fancy,” she said.

“You can get fancy, but you can make them really quickly.”

Ramsden uses a milliner’s needle, scissors, glue and push-pins to construct her books from thick card, paper, greaseproof paper, leather, linen thread and a 3B1 notebook – all tied together in a kangaroo sheath band.

The Nag Hammadi-style books Robyn makes at Booktown workshops are simplified down, so they’re quick and easy to put together, and pull apart.

“I cheat, so a 3B1 notebook is the innards, so when you’ve finished filling up your notebook with however you use notebooks, you can just pop their stitches and stitch a new one in and off you go,” she said.

“A couple of people I know have actually bought an index book because you can buy a notebook that’s an index book and put an index book in, and now that’s your address book.

“Because it’s leather it last for ages, and if you want to update your notebook, you just take it out and put a new one in and keep going.”

Ramsden uses the craft at mediaeval re-enactment events, boasting her ability to hide an iPad in what looks like a mediaeval book.

I took it to an event and I had to read something, and the circumstances meant that I read it straight from my iPad,” she said.

“I was a scandal, because it the first time anyone had ever done that in a mediaeval event.

“And now everyone does it.

“Now all the Herald’s, all their gear, everything they have to read: it’s all on iPad in books that are hidden by essentially modern-made mediaeval books.”

The idea came from a friend of hers, Isabell Winter, who continues to make mock-mediaeval gear for modern devices.

“She’s made girdle books for people’s iPhones and their phones, and they have them on their belts,” she said.

“And they look just like a girdle book, but in it, is their phone, which is super cool.

“So for mediaeval re-enactors we’re now able to keep our devices on us, but in a discreet way.

“I guess there’s a use-change [in bindery skills] that’s coming along, that people sort of don’t consider because everything is electronic, but it’s nice having things that aren’t as well.”

public interest journalism ellie

Ellie Franco
Ellie Franco
Ellie Franco is Wairarapa’s Local Focus video journalist. She regularly covers in-depth stories on arts, culture, people, health, and the occasional pup.

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