Digitally imaging the copperplate engravings of a 17th-century history of plants

About the research project

RTI capture of Morison Copper plates

RTI capture, Morison Copper plates, Section 15 Tab. 17, Mosses, Image, Ashmolean Museum Conservation

291 copper plates, engraved in the 1680s to 1690s for Oxford University Press, have survived from the publication of Plantarum historiae universalis Oxoniensis, by Robert Morison, Oxford’s first Professor of Botany. A project in 2018-19 supported by the John Fell OUP Research Fund enabled 3D and 2D imaging and inter-disciplinary discussion of the methods for preserving and studying these relics of the publishing process.

The project drew together a wealth of expertise from University institutions, encouraging a discussion of historical materials that crossed boundaries between materials sciences, archival and library cataloguing, the history of scientific knowledge and the history of technological and craft development. 

Research aims

The project asked whether imaging of engraved metal plates could produce data about the 3D surface of these objects which is usable by printing historians. It aimed to discover the most relevant digital tools to support research into the making of copper plates in the early modern period, and their conservation in collections today.  This has enabled researchers to learn more about the surface of the hand-engraved copper plates by non-invasive means, and will provide a basis for further teaching and research.


Images from Optical 3D profilometry

Images from Optical 3D profilometry of a portion of one engraved copper plate. Slide by Kalin Draginevski, Department of Engineering Science

Optical 3D profilometry was carried out by the Laboratory for In-situ Microscopy and Analysis (LIMA), in the Department of Engineering Science. Profilometry enabled close examination of the depth of the engraving marks, to 0.1 micron. Measurements enabled comparison of marks at different parts of the plates. The measurements showed the depth and texture of engraved lines. Comparison of the depth and shape of lines, across work by the same named engravers, is possible if sufficient data can be collected. Using the same method to examine acid-etched printing plates will reveal how each method interacts differently with the crystalline structure of the copper.  The 3D modelling is sufficient to attempt 3D printout of sections, for teaching use.

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) of five copper plates was done by the Ashmolean Conservation department. This produced high-resolution images of the surfaces, front and back, of the five selected plates, for potential use in teaching and research.

Project funder

John Fell Fund

Project dates

August 2018 - March 2019

Project team

Alexandra Franklin, Bodleian Libraries (

Stephen Harris, Plant Sciences

Virginia Lladó-Buisán, Bodleian Libraries

Veronica Ford, Bodleian Libraries


RTI capture of Morison Copper plates

RTI capture (detail), Morison Copper plates, Section 11 Tab. 19. Image, Ashmolean Museum Conservation

A weekly seminar shared knowledge and understanding between representatives of different institutions and departments of the University, including the Department of Plant Sciences, Faculty of History, Bodleian, Botanic Garden, History of Science Museum,
Ashmolean, Oxford University Press, and Department of Engineering Science. Participants exchanged expertise on printing, botanical science, history of the University, historical bibliography, scientific instruments, art and engraving, and materials

As part of this series, the user seminar for the LIMA brought together participants in the weekly copperplates seminar with faculty members and postgraduates in the Department of Engineering Science. A further workshop at the Weston Library in February
2019 discussed the history of Morison’s publication and examined images of the copper plates.

Further research

A workshop of historians and library curators in February 2019 recommended a census of copies of Morison’s work. The results will be analysed to learn more about the pattern of production from printing to binding of the books, including comparison of
paper stocks.


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