DNA extraction may uncover medieval manuscripts' secrets

Author:  Dunia Rassy
Institution:  London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Centuries have gone by leaving aside an exquisite collection of carefully handwritten books. However, for most of them, the present dating techniques based on the handwriting and dialect of the scribe have not been able to tell us their either their age or origin. After a long time of neglecting the fact that most parchments are made of animal skin, a young researcher has decided to extract and compare their DNA. Timothy Stinson from North Carolina State University presented his first findings at the annual meeting of the Bibliographical Society of America, held last week in New York.


The main goal of Stinson's project is to create a genetic database capable of pinpointing the origin and age for any given parchment. His first step will be creating a baseline from the few manuscripts which have been accurately dated and localized. Although previous studies from Cambridge researchers have demonstrated that it was possible to extract DNA from parchment, this is the first time the method will be incorporated into a scientific project. Stinson bought a French prayer book from the 15th century and will use it to run the initial experiments. He will attempt to get most of the DNA without damaging the ancient manuscripts and is confident that besides creating a baseline, he will get substantial information since a parchment may contain skin from more than 100 animals.

The next step would involve the comparison of DNA from manuscripts of unknown origin against the baseline. The latter would have specific short DNA sequences that differentiate between dates and places. The similarity of the sequences obtained from the unidentified manuscripts to the ones in the baseline could identify the animals whose skin was used, as well as the period in which the parchment was created.

Beyond discovering the origin of books, DNA extraction might become useful at advancing our knowledge of historic manuscripts. It could help settle disputes concerning parchments manufactured with rare techniques. This method will also enlighten us about how exactly different parts of skin were sewn together to create parchment. This information would help us devise proper ways of conserving them. Interestingly, the results would also allow scientists to track the trade route of parchment during the Medieval Age and perhaps provide information to livestock owners on the descent of their herds.

Written by: Dunia Rassy

Edited by: Jeffrey Kost

Published by: Hoi See Tsao