Friday, July 28, 2017

DNA analysis of manuscripts

TECHNOLOGY WATCH: Goats, bookworms, a monk’s kiss: Biologists reveal the hidden history of ancient gospels (Ann Gibbons, Science Magazine). This article is about DNA analysis of medieval Gospel manuscripts, but the techology is potentially of considerable interest for ancient historians. Many medieval manuscripts contain copies of ancient texts, and the social background of the manuscripts can be important for understanding the transmission of these texts. And the technology could be applicable to some ancient manuscripts.

The article describes a non-invasive technique for gathering material from a parchment for DNA analysis. It touches on how bacteria (e.g., from sneezes - ugh!) left on the manuscript can tell about its past users. It also discusses how the remains of parasites in the bindings and the manuscripts can give all sorts of useful information about the artifact. Excerpt on some possible applications:
[Biochemist Matthew] Collins is seeking advice on what to do with any DNA his team finds and sequences. What hypotheses should they address? "We're fishing for proteins and DNA and catching a lot of stuff," Collins says. "But we scientists come up with questions humanities scholars think are dumb," such as the cause of a death already described in mortuary records. And scientists and humanities scholars have different approaches: Given the concerns about DNA contamination, scientists prefer to touch books only with gloves. But among humanities scholars, the tradition is to use bare hands to ensure that people handle the pages gently; those wearing gloves are thought be rougher.

Some scholars at the Bodleian meeting had lofty ideas—would it be possible to get DNA of famous people such as Isaac Newton, who left behind many diaries and documents? Others were more interested in the bookworms. Hedges announced that the wormholes he measured in the Gospel of Luke were 1.3 millimeters in diameter, suggesting that they were made by Anobium punctatum, a northern European beetle. That would confirm that the book was made in the United Kingdom or northern Europe, rather than in southern Europe. The DNA of bookworms "can provide clues as to when and where objects such as books originated and were transported," Hedges says.

Some medievalists are enthused about the idea that biologists might be able to aid their studies, filling in the blanks left by written records. "I look at handwriting and dialect analysis to figure out a manuscript's age—ridiculous!" laments Stinson, given the Herculean effort required to do so. Now, he says, "I could go ask a biologist."

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