Infrared, seals and nomads

Digital photography is allowing us to read some previously unreadable manuscripts. Take for example IOL Tib J 834, part of a scroll that almost certainly dates back to the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang (c.781-848 CE). The importance of this scroll is indicated by the silk lining that was used to strengthen the edges (visible in the image below).
IOL Tib J 834 (detail)
The scroll has become darkened by handling, or because of where it was stored before being placed in the Dunhuang library cave, so that some of it is unreadable. What makes it worse is that some of the writing and all of the seals stamped on the manuscript are in red ink, which is now almost invisible.

Now, this scroll is a perfect candidate for infrared photography. Though infrared is not as magically efficacious as some believe (see these pages), it works very well with manuscripts that have darkened over time, and, of course, with red ink. As the infrared image below shows, we can now clearly see the seal on this manuscript, a rectangular seal containing a picture of a horse and (perhaps) a pasture? The writing underneath states that this is the seal of Drog (‘Brog), a word that means ‘nomad’, which fits rather well with the horse and pasture image.

IOL Tib J 834 (seal, infrared)

This raises another question. As Kazushi Iwao has kindly pointed out to me, this scroll is a land registry, that is to say, it parcels out land between different landowners. So why would nomads be involved with this kind of thing?

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