Irish DNA research on ancient parchment reveals historic agriculture

8 Dec 2014

Parchment manufacture marks in Archbishop's Register 41b Musgrave, 1853-1858. Image via The Borthwick Institute for Archives

New research undertaken by researchers from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and the University of York shows extracted ancient DNA from parchments can determine the development of centuries-old agriculture.

The state-of-the-art process now opens up millions of ancient documents written on various animal skins to research as they have successfully conducted genetic sequencing techniques enabling them to establish the type of animals from which the parchment was made.

By comparing their genomes with their modern equivalents, the results provide key information as to how agricultural expansion shaped the genetic diversity of these animals, and more specifically animal husbandry, over the last few centuries.

To conduct their research, geneticists at TCD extracted DNA from two tiny samples of parchment, measuring 2cm x 2cm, provided by the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Meanwhile, researchers in the Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at York extracted collagen (protein) from the same parchment samples.  

In the first sample obtained by the researchers, its DNA showed a strong affinity with northern Britain, specifically the region in which black-faced sheep breeds such as swaledale, rough fell and Scottish blackface are common, whereas a second sample showed a closer affinity with the British midlands and southern Britain, where the livestock improvements of the later 18th century were most active.

Speaking of its potential, professor of population genetics at TCD Daniel Bradley, said: “This pilot project suggests that parchments are an amazing resource for genetic studies that consider agricultural development over the centuries. There must be millions stored away in libraries, archives, solicitors’ offices and even in our own attics. After all, parchment was the writing material of choice for thousands of years, going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic