DNA Sampling from Medieval Manuscripts

July 11th, 2016
DNA sampling from a book of hours [ca. 1450?], from Special Collections https://search.library.wisc.edu/catalog/999757866502121. Photo by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler.

DNA sampling from a book of hours [ca. 1450?], from Special Collections . Photo by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler.

We in Special Collections were delighted last Friday to engage in an international collaborative project to sample DNA from medieval manuscript volumes on parchment from our holdings. We owe the opportunity to Prof. Josh Calhoun, valued user and supporter of Special Collections and the Libraries. Calhoun is working with Matthew Collins, professor of archaeology at the University of York, whose projects include ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry).  As Calhoun has described it, ZooMS “involves non-invasive, non-destructive DNA sampling of parchment archival documents.” The project “has gathered data from archives all over the UK, but here at UW-Madison, we have the opportunity to be the only US institution to contribute.” Articles in The Washington Post (see here) and The Independent (see here) provide more information about the York University project.

The occasion brought together campus faculty and students, librarians from Special Collections and Ebling Health Sciences Library, preservation and conservation specialists from the General Library System and Wisconsin Historical Society, and donors and board members of the Friends of the UW-Madison Libraries. All took part in the careful and collaborative sampling process. Among the manuscripts sampled were a medieval Bible written in a very small “pearl script,” a large and well-used antiphonary volume, and a 15th-century book of hours.

The samples will then head to York for processing. As Calhoun notes, “The results may reveal intriguing details about individual items in our collection—and they’ll also contribute to a growing dataset that’s helping us to understand the relationship between animal husbandry and book making in medieval and early modern England.” Our samples, which include manuscripts from the Continent, will help to broaden the geographical scope.

Prof. Florence Hsia of the Department of History of Science, UW-Madison, captures the DNA sampling process with her iPad and shares it in real-time via FaceTime. Photo by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler.

Prof. Florence Hsia of the Department of History of Science, UW-Madison, captures the DNA sampling process with her iPad and shares it in real-time via FaceTime. Photo by Micaela Sullivan-Fowler.

Although I was unable to be present for the actual sampling process, I was grateful for some other ubiquitous but powerful technologies (iPads and FaceTime) and the cooperation of colleagues that enabled my virtual participation. My thanks too to Micaela Sullivan-Fowler, historical services librarian at Ebling Health Sciences Library, for photos of the occasion.

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