Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Protecting the Law of the Land … Literally

Did you know that the Magna Carta, the first written constitution in Western civilization, the foundation for modern laws, and the guiding inspiration for the authors of the Charters of Freedom (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights), has a Version 2.0? The first Magna Carta—the one everyone knows—was signed in 1215 by King John of England when forced by an assembly of barons to guarantee the rights, liberties and due process entitled to the nation’s people. In 1297, another group of English aristocrats persuaded Edward I to not only amend and reissue the Magna Carta but, for the first time, enter it into the official legal registry of England.

Image of the Magna Carta
English aristocrats forced King Edward I to sign this second version of the Magna Carta in 1297. The parchment ribbon attached at the bottom bears a wax seal with the ruler’s image.
Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

The second Magna Carta was loaned to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2008 to allow for public display. Archives preservationists spent the next few years restoring the document and when it was ready, turned to a trusted colleague, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), to ensure its continued preservation. Like it did for the Charters of Freedom documents on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., NIST designed and manufactured a similar state-of-the-art encasement for the Magna Carta in 2012. 

A three-dimensional scan of the Magna Carta, including the attached parchment ribbon bearing a wax seal with Edward I’s image, was used during the design and manufacturing process to ensure a proper fit for the real document. As with the NIST-built cases for the Charters of Freedom and the Waldseemüller Map, the base and frame were machined from single blocks of aluminum to eliminate seams.

Photo of the milling machine making the Magna Carta encasement
The base and frame of the Magna Carta encasement were machined from single blocks of aluminum to eliminate seams.
Credit: M. Luce/NIST

The NIST engineers even added a special contoured nest to the bottom of the base to safely hold and display the document’s fragile ribbon. The case also features a protective atmosphere of inert argon gas, sensors that continuously monitor the internal environment, close-fitting bolts that hold the frame against double O-rings for a virtually leakproof seal and accessibility—if ever needed—to the parchment within. 

Two NIST physicists bolt the encasement.
NIST physicist Charles Tilford (left) and engineering technician Wendall Combs (right) bolt the Magna Carta encasement for leak testing.
Credit: M. Luce/NIST

The Magna Carta encasement is 104 centimeters (41 inches) wide by 71 centimeters (28 inches) long and weighs 102 kilograms (225 pounds), equivalent to a fully-grown panda. The document preserved inside was purchased for the National Archives by American financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein at an auction in 2007 for $21.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a single piece of paper. Rubenstein also donated the funds that the Archives used for the document’s restoration and for NIST to build its special home.

Magna Carta Encasement
Magna Carta Encasement

Did You Know...?

  • The original 1215 Magna Carta was voided by Pope Innocent III just 10 weeks after it was signed by King John. This made the 1297 document—the one now on display at the National Archives—the version that became the official English statute law.
  • Only three clauses from the Magna Carta remain on the books in the United Kingdom. These statutes grant freedom to the Church of England, guarantee the customs and liberties of the city of London, and forbid arbitrary arrest and the sale of justice.
  • To create a seamless platform for the Magna Carta, a single 15-centimeter (6-inch) thick block of aluminum was used. NIST engineers cut away about 90 percent of that block with a computer-controlled milling machine, leaving an end product that still weighed 102 kilograms (225 pounds).

    – Michael E. Newman

    Created June 20, 2017, Updated February 13, 2019