Parchment Itself Holds Clues to Past

Researchers investigate DNA of writing surface
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 8, 2014 9:42 AM CST
Forget the Writing: Parchment Itself Holds Clues to Past
The Lincoln Cathedral Magna Carta on display at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.   (AP Photo / The Berkshire Eagle, Ben Garver)

Plenty of historical knowledge comes from writings on parchment—but now, researchers are learning about the past using the parchment itself. DNA analysis of the writing surface is revealing genetic information about the animals used to make it, and how their genomes differ from similar animals today, according to research published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. "Wool was essentially the oil of times gone by, so knowing how human change affected the genetics of sheep through the ages can tell us a huge amount about how agricultural practices evolved," says a researcher.

Whereas bone DNA from the animals is hard to find, he tells the Irish Times, "we figured that one source for DNA from these animals would be parchment, because it is made from animal skins." Teams in Ireland and the UK pulled samples of DNA and protein from small pieces of parchment; they found that samples from different pieces of parchment showed similarity to different breeds of sheep. They're hoping that further study will show how the animals were bred, especially around the 18th century, which saw big changes in agriculture. There's plenty of the stuff around to investigate: "After all, parchment was the writing material of choice for thousands of years, going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls," the expert notes. (Researchers recently decoded a "magical codex" of ancient spells.)

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