Siamese Manuscripts Found at the Penn Museum – Part 1

July 20, 2016

The Asian Section is happy to feature a guest post by Justin McDaniel, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies and Undergraduate Studies and Susanne Kerekes, Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Penn. The Penn Museum has recently had some of their manuscripts digitized and cataloged as part of a larger project to digitize all the Thai manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania.  The Museum’s manuscripts, along with many others, are available online at Penn Libraries’ websites: Penn in Hand and OPenn.

Leaf from a recently digitized Thai manuscript, 77-5-5, featuring illustrations from the Jataka Tales, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha. On the left, Vidhura holds onto the tail of a horse. On the right, he preaches a sermon to Yakka (Yaksha) Punnaka.

Part 1: Collections and Digital Access

Early collectors of Thai manuscripts brought back many examples to the United States between the mid-19th and mid-20th century. These were subsequently gifted to many academic libraries and museums. Since Philadelphia was the largest and wealthiest American city at that time, the most significant collections were given to the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University Library, and the Free Library of Philadelphia, while another major collection went to the New York Public Library. Of all the institutions in the United States that have collections of Thai manuscripts only six present a “visual” component of their manuscripts online. The remaining institutions do not provide images and only list the titles of the manuscripts. Thai manuscripts can be viewed online at the websites of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, University of California at Berkeley’s Libraries’ catalog, Harvard University Libraries’ catalog, and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ catalog. These institutions provide full digital facsimiles of many or most of their Thai manuscripts online and they are freely accessible. The University of Arizona and the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University own a few Thai manuscripts, but they only present a single photographic image of particular manuscripts online.

Even though cataloging has largely not been accurate, the experts at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and The Walters Art Museum have developed advanced scanning and cataloging technologies.

For example, a number of manuscripts in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum) were recently discovered. The cataloged information (last updated in the 1920s) was almost completely wrong. There also had been no effort to identify the contents, donor, condition, etc. A catalog from 1980 provides almost no information about its contents or how it was acquired.


The team at SCETI photographed and processed just over 2,100 image files to be published on the Penn in Hand website and OPenn.

Susanne Kerekes (Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Penn) and Justin McDaniel (Chair, Department of Religious Studies and Consulting Scholar at the Penn Museum) were convinced of the necessity of this project after being asked to examine a few unidentified Thai manuscripts at the Penn Museum and Penn Libraries. Many of these manuscripts were being held in long-term archival storage and had not been looked at for almost 30 years and never seriously analyzed. Their contents were largely unknown. They quickly found a treasure trove of very rare Northern, Southern, and Central Thai manuscripts. Unlike other collections in the U.S., the Penn Museum holds Northern Thai palm-leaf manuscripts. These texts are largely not illuminated, but contain astrological, ritual, and magical formulas, as well as information on homiletic practices in the region. This collection also contains several, improperly labeled, “Yuon” and “Lao” script manuscripts which are actually Tua Dham script texts. These are hard to find outside of the region and upon further investigation probably are from rural Nan Province. The Penn Library (more specifically the state-of-the-art Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts) holds mostly central Thai mulberry paper manuscripts, many of which are fine examples of Abhidhamma and Phra Malai illuminated texts.

These two collections (numbering 56 texts), both at the University of Pennsylvania, offer a wide-range of Thai manuscript types and form one of the oldest and largest collections in the United States.

This collection was bolstered by the acquisition, with the assistance of Hiram Woodward of The Walters Art Museum, of the Bekker collection of 11 rare manuscripts which were purchased through the Sloan & Kenyon Auction House in 2013.  Part 2 of this blog series on Thai manuscripts will highlight a few examples and demonstrate the diversity of this collection and the research possibilities that await.