The Declaration of Independence bears the rhetorical handprint of a generation of Americans who were determined to throw off the yoke of royal tyranny. It also bears a handprint, literally.

It's in the lower left corner. There's no two ways about it: It's someone's sloppy paw print, smack dab on the document that founded the nation.

No one knows whose hand it is, or when the defacement occurred. There is no record of anyone accidentally putting a smutty hand on the declaration. That's definitely the kind of boneheaded move that would inspire a person to utter an expletive, perhaps one of those Dick Cheney words.

The document, kept under glass in the rotunda of the National Archives, also has water stains. They're visible near the center, perhaps from condensation dripping from a schooner of home-brew being bolted down by the same dolt who left the handprint.

There are also creases, indicating that at times the declaration wasn't rolled up tidily, but folded, like a road map. Again, one wonders who had the chutzpah to fold up such a document, and did they struggle to do it while simultaneously driving?

This is one battle-scarred, stained, beat-up, faded, yet magical piece of parchment. It's been carted all over the country, hidden from attacking Brits, dispatched to Fort Knox during World War II and for too many years exposed to harsh sunlight as a museum exhibit, the ultraviolet radiation steadily erasing the exquisite penmanship of the draftsman, Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the secretary of the Continental Congress.

"We've nearly loved it to death," says Archives exhibit curator Stacey Bredhoff.

The declaration is now treated as a fragile treasure. The rotunda of the Archives remains dim, bordering on gloomy. The declaration has a kind of golden glow, thanks to specially filtered optical-fiber light beams (the harsh blue and ultraviolet spectral wavelengths are blocked, skewing the color toward the yellow). The glass case has been filled with preservative argon and rigorously dehumidified. The Space Age meets the 18th century.

The document, made of animal skin -- possibly cow, though the curators aren't sure -- recently underwent a painstaking conservation process that fixed a few small tears, patched a hole along one edge, removed a bit of grime, but otherwise left the intriguing marks of time intact.

In this way the declaration cuts against the grain of so many museum treasures and carefully preserved and refurbished historical sites. Restoration often turns historic homes into shiny Stepford Wife versions of their former selves. Blemishes are banished. Civil War battlefields are peaceful meadows with wildflowers, with hardly any bullet-riddled bodies other than some guys in costume who are faking.

So many preservationists think that the best way to take care of something old is to make it look spiffy and new. It's history scrubbed up, perfumed, edgeless. Mount Vernon looks so good you'd think it was going on the market. Colonial Williamsburg is as polished as a shopping mall. One gets the sense that in the 18th and 19th centuries the defining characteristic of American life was how neat and tidy everything was. The clean years!

At the National Archives, the murals above the so-called Charters of Freedom -- the declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- have also been restored recently, looking as bright and cartoonish as they did when painted in the 1930s. In the left mural, Thomas Jefferson hands the Declaration of Independence to John Hancock in a reenactment of a scene that never happened. In the right mural, George Washington stands in white tights, looking like a professional wrestler about to take on Stone Cold Jimmy Madison.

Even the declaration has its improved versions. An engraved copper plate, precisely matching the original document, has long been used to create sharply defined copies. Moreover, the Dunlap broadsides, printed versions of the declaration hastily produced the night of July 4, 1776, are generally in excellent condition.

But there's only one "original" declaration. Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776, then approved the declaration on the Fourth, and on July 19 ordered the preparation of an official historical document, the thing that's now on display at the archives. The signing of this document didn't begin until Aug. 2. (All of this is a reminder that it might not be such a historical outrage to have a national holiday this year on the Fifth of July.)

The "conserved" declaration proudly proclaims its long journey through the generations: The thing is pretty much unreadable. That's not going to change. Archival rule one is, you don't re-ink the Declaration of Independence.

"We land very strongly on the side of history speaking for itself, letting the signs of age speak for themselves, and yet we want things to look well cared for. That's the tension," says Kitty Nicholson, a National Archives conservator who carefully labored on the documents in the rotunda. She described the site of the conservation project, which concluded last September, as "a secure, undisclosed location." She worked with clean hands, no jewelry, no fingernail polish and certainly no cups of coffee nearby. She used a microscope to scrutinize every square millimeter of the declaration.

The mysterious handprint essentially disappeared under magnification. She couldn't find anything to sample. She's pretty sure it's not printer's ink and suspects it might be oil that wasn't even visible to the person who pressed it on the parchment. The handprint doesn't appear in 19th-century photographs of the declaration and presumably showed up sometime in the 20th.

"It's not a very large hand," she says. A thought hangs in the air: A woman did it. Or maybe it was a small man, or even that filthiest of human creatures, a child.

Is it a desecration of the declaration? Actually it's just what the document needs: a democratic touch.

Now protected in a climate-controlled glass case, the Declaration of Independence bears the imprint of time.Madeleine Joseph and Adam Jennison view the Declaration of Independence.