Wednesday, January 14, 2009

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: DNA profiling is being applied to medieval manuscripts:
How Old Is That Book? DNA May Hold the Answer
Hide and Seek: genetic material from animal-skin pages may trace medieval manuscript origins

By Katherine Harmon (Scientific American)

Long before musty old paper volumes and Google Book Search, most tomes in medieval Europe were written on animal skins—a practice which might now hold the key to tracing their origins.

Timothy Stinson, an associate English professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, has started using DNA testing to track the history and age of medieval manuscripts. His goal: to create a DNA database from the books with known publication dates and places (such as calendars and histories) in an effort to use the genetic information gleaned from them as a baseline to date those manuscripts whose backgrounds are unknown.

"There are these tantalizing hints that this would work for parchment," he says of the DNA testing, "but no one was really using it." He says that in addition to tracing the roots of written documents, genetic clues may help piece together manuscripts that were separated over time.


DNA testing has previously been used to study Greek manuscripts as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nikos Poulakakis, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Crete in Greece who conducted some of that research, says he's eagerly awaiting the results of the U.S. study. He notes that in addition to revealing important information about old manuscripts and library collections, the genetic material may also shed light on ancient trade routes and even domestic animal herds of the time.

I've posted on DNA analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The application to medieval manuscripts is also welcome and could be useful, for example, for studying Old Testament Pseudepigrapha manuscripts, most of which are medieval.