https://archives.blog.parliament.uk/2016/08/31/revealing-parchments-hidden-stories/

Revealing Parchment’s Hidden Stories

Thomas Bower (Collection Care Assistant) writes about an on-going academic project we've been helping with.

Over the summer, members of the Collection Care Team at the Parliamentary Archives have contributed to a nationwide research project to explore the DNA of historic parchments.

The project is being run by the University of York and Trinity College Dublin, and involves a collaboration between geneticists and archaeologists. Parchment is made of animal skin and thus contains DNA. Microscopic samples taken from parchment collections across the country are analysed using DNA sequencing to track genetic changes in livestock over time and build up a clearer picture about how British agriculture evolved over the centuries. This video describes the project in more detail.

The Parliamentary Archives holds one of the biggest collections of parchment in the world. Most parchments in the collection relate to legal issues or Parliamentary business and are thus dated very specifically. This makes our collection an ideal place to collect accurately dated samples for use in the project.

Followers of this blog will know that we have been working on our collection of Protestation Returns, digitising them and making them more accessible for our users. While working with the documents, collection care staff collected a series of samples from Protestation Returns drawn up in York and Lincoln in the early 1640s. The method for taking samples, shown in the images here, is very non-invasive and does not cause any damage. A small section on the reverse of the parchment is gently rubbed with a small piece of eraser. This process creates a low static charge, meaning that eraser particles left behind on the surface pick up microscopic strands from the parchment, which contain animal DNA. These eraser particles are transferred into small, sealable tubes and sent to the University of York for DNA sequencing and mapping into the wider historical timeframe.

We look forward to the results from our small contribution and to see how they fit into the bigger picture across the British Isles. It is has been very interesting contributing to this research project and look forward to continuing our involvement in future.

Figure 1: An example of one of the Protestation Returns written on parchment
Figure 1: An example of one of the Protestation Returns written on parchment

 

Figure 2: Taking a microscopic sample with an eraser
Figure 2: Taking a microscopic sample with an eraser

 

Figure 3: Depositing the eraser particles that hold the microscopic parchment strands into a sealable tube to send away for analysis
Figure 3: Depositing the eraser particles that hold the microscopic parchment strands into a sealable tube to send away for analysis

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