This Cambridge Life

The photographer sharing the secrets of rare manuscripts

Amélie Deblauwe cleaning the surface ready to use for photography

Amélie Deblauwe, in the Digital Content Unit at Cambridge University Library

Amélie Deblauwe, in the Digital Content Unit at Cambridge University Library

When Amélie Deblauwe cycled to work on 21 June 2019 she had no idea that by lunchtime she’d be in A&E and not leave the hospital for five weeks. Today she is back at the University Library doing the job she loves – photographing ancient manuscripts to make them accessible to everyone.

I’d been feeling gradually increasingly unwell for two or three months. I had a cough I couldn’t shake off, I kept getting infections which didn’t seem to clear up with antibiotics, I needed to catch my breath after climbing the stairs and I was unnaturally tired. My GP decided to do a blood test. The results came back as abnormal.

The next morning, I sat on the side of the bed collecting myself. I felt exhausted. But I thought: “Okay, I need to go to work,” and cycled to the University Library. After a meeting about Greek manuscripts, I called my GP surgery. They said I needed to go to A&E immediately to have a blood transfusion.

I was admitted on the spot and didn’t leave for the next five weeks. It was very hard to hear it was cancer. Your heart sinks because you’re just very scared of dying. Cancer is an unfair disease. There's no way of knowing from the beginning whether you’re going to make it or not.

Amélie turning the pages of a bible

Amélie with a Dutch Bible from 1534.

Amélie with a Dutch Bible from 1534.

I’m well now but I won’t be considered cured of leukaemia until five years post-transplant. I had my bone-marrow transplant in the summer of 2020. The months leading up to the procedure were very difficult; I was receiving immunotherapy treatment to achieve remission before my transplant. This meant I was extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 so I had to spend a lot of time alone shielding.

I had to dig deep in my resources to find peace and not completely lose it. With a lot of support from my friends, family and the team at Addenbrookes I managed to stay afloat. My Dad would send me a message every day which would begin: “day X of your recovery”.

Amélie looking at a small map that has been coloured by hand. 

Amélie looking at a small map that has been coloured by hand. 

Amélie looking at a small map that has been coloured by hand. 

One time (pre-pandemic) a friend organised my very own fireworks display which I could see from my hospital window so I wouldn’t miss out on Bonfire Night. After my transplant my Mum came over from Belgium for several months to look after me. At that time, I was too weak to do anything for myself.

I learnt that you just can’t do it on your own. When you’re as unwell as I was, you have to trust others, and relinquish some of the control. This affects both the big and little things of life like how the laundry is done, what you'll have for dinner and when you’ll finally be going home. I am forever grateful and indebted to those whom I was able to depend on when I needed it the most.

Amélie holding ruler by colour chart

Amélie with ruler and colour chart.

Amélie with ruler and colour chart.

I first came to Cambridge to study Egyptology, attending Darwin College. I felt that I’d found my people and truly belonged. The friends I’ve made here are so curious about many things – the world, people, society, politics – just like I am.

I was around eight years old when my Mum brought me a book about Egyptian myths and legends. From that point I completely fell in love with ancient Egypt. I read everything about it that I could get my hands on – from fictional stories to academic books.

When I was 18 my whole family chipped in and paid for my first trip to Egypt. The trip added a whole new dimension to my love of Egyptology, which up until then, had been experienced through words and pictures on paper.

I’ll always remember the first temple I saw – the Temple of Edfu in Upper Egypt – I was so moved I teared up. The trip was extraordinary and a revelation. I have returned to Egypt several times since then, including to take part in archaeological digs.

Amélie opening map

Amélie with a map from the late 19th Century showing part of a Cambridge parish.

Amélie with a map from the late 19th Century showing part of a Cambridge parish.

My childhood self would not be able to believe that today I get to handle ancient documents like papyrus. I’m a photographer at the University Library. My job involves taking incredibly high-resolution pictures of rare texts. The photographs are then made available to everyone through the digital library.

One of the first texts I photographed was a Japanese scroll, telling the story of the origins of the folding fan, dating from the 17th Century. The illustrations of cherry blossom and a samurai playing a flute were exquisite.

Another project involved photographing a palimpsest called Codex Zacynthius. Palimpsests are manuscripts that have had the original text removed and replaced by another text. In the case of Codex Zacynthius the bottom layer of text is an eighth-century copy of St Luke’s Gospel and the top layer is a lectionary of the New Testament written in the 12th Century.

Amélie pointing at map

As well as photography we used multispectral imaging to capture the intricacies of Codex Zacynthius. Multispectral imaging reveals details of the manuscript that are normally hidden to the naked eye, by exposing it to different frequencies of light ranging from infrared to ultraviolet. The multispectral cameras themselves are worth thousands of pounds and there are only a few in the country.

My colleagues and I are extremely passionate about our work. Making these treasures accessible to the public and to researchers all over the world is at the heart of everything we do. We would digitise everything if we could but that would take several lifetimes!

Amélie pointing at map

Asked if I had any life-changing revelations as a result of my cancer diagnosis I’d say: “It’s not like in the movies!” I was more concerned with just getting by on a day-to-day basis. When I was first diagnosed, I did think: “but I haven’t done my PhD in Egyptology yet!” It’s still something I’d like to do but for now I’m just enjoying everyday life.

I’ve come full circle. I’ve just returned from a music festival in Spain that my friends and I first booked three years ago – but had to postpone because of my diagnosis and the pandemic.

I feel so alive. There were beautiful, emotional moments listening to some of my favourite artists and finally, swimming in the sea again. Now I’m ready; onto the next chapter!

Published 5 July 2022
With thanks to:

Amélie Deblauwe

Charis Goodyear

Jacqueline Garget
Nick Saffell

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License